Understanding Cravings in Addiction Recovery
Anyone that is at war with the disease of addiction comes to the realization that cravings are an ongoing battle. It is not as simple as having a hunger for butter pecan ice cream. Cravings can be dangerous for someone in recovery from drug addiction or alcoholism. Whether it is alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin or another mood altering substance, the urge to return to alcohol or drug use (relapse) can be overwhelming. Learning to cope with these cravings is paramount to maintaining a clean and sober lifestyle. However, before you can learn to cope it is important to have a clear understanding of what is meant by “craving”.
WHAT IS A CRAVING
A craving is a desire to return to alcohol or drug use. A person that has maintained abstinence at times will have these urges, which can range from very mild to extremely intense. Most people in early recovery (the period immediately after stopping use of alcohol and/or drugs) tend to have more frequent and intense cravings. People who were abstinent for a longer time usually have them sporadically and with less intensity. Cravings or urges to get high or drink is a normal part of recovery from addiction. It is important to note that while some people in early recovery may not experience cravings at first, they will come at some point. Cravings are normal and even after 20 years of recovery a person may still be affected.
WHY DO I HAVE CRAVINGS
There are several reasons why a person abstinent from drugs and alcohol has cravings. Someone might say, “I don’t want to use alcohol anymore, so why do I still desire it? I know the devastation it brought to my life”. To answer this one must understand how the mind and body are affected by drugs and alcohol. Throughout the course of addiction, there is a mental and physical dependence on the substance taken. In other words, the mind and body are changed by these substances and react as if continued us is necessary for survival. Let’s use alcohol as an example: Alcohol is put into the body for several years and then all of a sudden use stops. This confuses the body. Why??? Because the more alcohol is consumed over time the body accommodates by producing extra enzymes to break down the toxins (which is what alcohol is). So you stopped drinking, but your body is still anticipating the alcohol and in preparation continues to produce those enzymes. This is the reason that people feel sick (experience withdrawal symptoms) when they stop drinking. One affect is the urge to drink. TADA!
Long term memory is another factor that contributes to cravings. Most people continued to use alcohol or drugs because they liked the feeling that they produced. Just because a person decides to stop using or drinking, does not mean they forget the feeling that drugs or alcohol produces. It is for this reason that a person continues to crave their choice of drug or alcohol.
The mind is absolutely amazing. Let’s say that you are in the kitchen washing dishes with your radio playing. One of your favorite songs from “back in the day” come on. You turn it up and you’re dancing around. Two minutes later you have a craving. Why??? It is because the song triggered the urge. Now you’re asking why, right? Maybe, you and your friends use to play that song and get wasted. Since, that song was linked in your brain with drinking; it resurrected the desire to drink alcohol again. Keep in mind this is just one example of what is called a “trigger”.
Unfortunately, dealing with triggers is a normal occurrence for people recovering from addiction. A trigger is anything that brings the thought of using drugs or alcohol into your consciousness. It can vary from going around those old “people, places, and things”, to negative feelings (anger, sadness, loneliness), to positive feelings/experiences (excitement, getting a lot of money), to physical pain, or to what you see, smell, taste or touch. Everyone’s triggers will be different.
WHAT TO REMEMBER ABOUT CRAVINGS
There are some things you can learn from having cravings that help you in your recovery process. Having cravings can be an indicator that you need to do more to address your addiction. A craving is a warning sign to stay on your toes and be diligent to avoid relapse. Be mindful that having a craving is not a reason to use drugs or drink, instead think of it as a reminder that alcohol and/or drugs had a chronic affect on your mind and body. Take comfort in knowing that it is like any other feeling, it will pass.
To learn more about triggers and cravings, keep coming back.
Next article: IDENTIFYING YOUR RELAPSE TRIGGERS