For me, cravings are one of the more frustrating aspects of early recovery. I knew that alcohol was bad for me and was wreaking havoc in my life, so it was really annoying to still want it so badly. To be struck with the intense desire to just … have a drink, no matter what the consequences might be. Years later, I’m so relieved to be at a point in my recovery when I rarely have cravings for alcohol. But they still pop up on occasion, and I know a lot of people in early recovery who deal with them more frequently.
We use the term “cravings,” as though they’re all the same, but the truth is that there are several different kinds of cravings. It can be helpful to pay attention to your cravings, to identify which category they fall into. This will help you combat your cravings more successfully, so you can stay on track with your recovery.
Reward cravings stem from wanting a treat, and are often reinforced by habit. If your cravings come with thoughts like, “I deserve this,” they might be reward cravings.
You can combat reward cravings by finding an alternate treat. Think about things that bring you joy or comfort, that you could use to reward yourself.
- Take a relaxing bath/shower
- Watch a favorite TV show
- Get yourself flowers or a plant
- Listen to your favorite music
- Do a fun hobby
- Buy yourself a small gift
- Savor a small, sweet treat
- Spend time with loved ones or pets
Note that your reward needs to be something you will experience as a treat. Don’t try to trick yourself, like, “As a reward, I will do the dishes,” unless doing the dishes is truly fun for you.
Relief cravings stem from reacting to stressors, like anxiety or fear. If you feel uncomfortable sensations or emotions and think, “I want something to take the edge off,” you’re probably dealing with a relief craving.
It’s understandable that you might want relief from painful emotions (or even physical pain). But relying on alcohol or drugs for your relief very often makes the situation worse instead of better—and often creates brand new uncomfortable situations and feelings.
Combat relief cravings with healthier sources of relief:
- Watch a funny video
- Take a nap
- Talk to a friend
- Get a massage
- Use a heating pad or ice pack (for physical discomfort)
- Do a favorite Workit course
- Take a bubble bath/shower
- Do some yoga/tai chi/qigong
- Make some tea or cocoa
- Try breathwork
- Dance to your favorite song
- Do some mild exercise
Obsessive cravings stem from addiction itself, and the changes in your brain caused by habitual use. While we often think of dopamine as a feel-good chemical, there is evidence that dopamine generates desire more than it generates pleasure. So when you encounter an addiction trigger, your brain releases a bunch of dopamine that makes you feel a compulsive sense of want.
Obsessive cravings are often looping and may feel inescapable while you’re experiencing them. If you feel like, “I have to have it,” you’re probably dealing with an obsessive craving.
The way to deal with an obsessive craving is to outlast it. While intense, they don’t last forever. Here are some ways to break out of the obsessive cravings spiral:
- Look at pictures of people you love
- Do something that takes your attention, like a puzzle or word game (Tetris has been shown to be helpful)
- Exercise/physical activity
- Set a timer and commit to not drinking or using for the next X amount of time (you can reset the timer if necessary when the time is up)
- Do Workit courses
- Help someone else/do service
- Journal about it
- Log into a group meeting or attend a recovery meeting in person
- Chat with a coach, sponsor, or supportive friend
- Talk to your provider about medications that can reduce cravings, like buprenorphine or naltrexone for opioids and naltrexone or acamprosate for alcohol.
I’m not going to lie; cravings suck. But the longer you stay on your recovery path, the less frequently you’ll have to deal with them. When one pops up in the meantime, paying attention to what kind of craving you’re experiencing can help you fight it. Once you discover which tactics work best for you in combatting your cravings, make note of them so you have them in your recovery toolkit the next time you need them.