We all remember our first drink, but what some of us didn’t know then is it would lead to alcohol dependence. There was a distinct moment your drinking went from an occasional occurrence to something you couldn’t leave the house without having. We live in a society so driven by alcohol that it’s hard to ignore. In college, blacking out is worn as a badge of honor.
Turning 21 means your party should consist of drinking and that it was a failed evening if you don’t wake up hungover. We’ve become so entrenched in these beliefs that it’s led to an entire generation of alcoholics. America has a drinking problem. Unfortunately, the more you drink, the more dependent you become, and if you’ve been wondering how to curb and overcome alcohol cravings, this guide can help.
For many of us, a drink here or there on a social outing won’t turn into anything more. However, for others, it turned into having to drink before the social gathering, during, and then have a “nightcap” before you head to sleep. This is followed up by having a drink when you wake up to feel normal. Alcohol dependence is a serious concern and can have fatal consequences if not managed properly, but people addicted to alcohol admit their cravings get the best of them. It’s especially challenging for those with social anxiety disorder who use alcohol as a crutch to overcome how they feel.
From 1999 to 2017, the number of alcohol-related deaths in the United States doubled to more than 70,000 a year. Today, that number has increased even more to 95,000 deaths annually, a figure almost as high as opioid overdose deaths, another scourge in our society. The pandemic had a lot to do with this as hard liquor sales rose, and more Americans reported that they drink more to cope with the stress. The increase in drinking has also led to more cirrhosis-related deaths among Americans.
Alcohol is an incredibly dangerous drug, but the cravings and withdrawal symptoms it produces when you try to stop makes the substance even more dangerous. Not giving in to your cravings might seem impossible, but there are steps you can take to conquer the battle.
Alcohol Use Statistics in the United States
If you’re wondering how widespread alcohol use is across the United States, a staggering 85.6 percent of people aged 18 and older reported consuming the elixir at one point in their life. Of those, 69.5 percent said they drank in the past year. Experimentation might seem harmless, but many people can get hooked on the feeling alcohol produces after a single use, and it can lead to binge drinking and heavy alcohol use. The same age group showed 25.8 percent reported binge drinking in the previous month, with 6.3 percent admitting to heavy alcohol use in the past month. Heavy alcohol use is considered eight drinks or more per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men.
The same study found that an unconscionable 14.5 million people over the age of 12 had an alcohol use disorder (AUD), which the Mayo Clinic defines as a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling your alcohol intake, being preoccupied with alcohol, and continuing to use it despite the issues it’s causing. Even more shocking, less than 10 percent of those with a past-year alcohol use disorder sought treatment. Alcohol misuse cost the United States a whopping $249 billion in 2010.
Those battling an alcohol use disorder will endure cravings, but what does alcohol use disorder look like?
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder
Unhealthy alcohol use, especially when cravings cause it, puts your health and safety at significant risk. This includes binge drinking, which consists of five or more drinks within two hours for men or four or more drinks in the same period for women. If how you drink is causing distress and issues in your daily life, you’ve likely developed an alcohol use disorder, which can range from mild to severe and lead to serious problems in your life. Early intervention is critical to your well-being.
Alcohol use disorder ranges from mild to severe and is dependent on the number of symptoms you experience. The most common symptoms include the following:
- Telling yourself you’ll have only one glass of wine, but you cannot limit how much you drink in one sitting.
- Telling yourself that you’re going to cut back or stop drinking, but you give in, and your attempts are unsuccessful.
- Spending most of or all of your time getting alcohol, drinking, or recovering from alcohol use.
- You experience strong and often overwhelming cravings and urges to drink alcohol.
- You cannot fulfill obligations at work, home, or school because of your alcohol intake.
- You continue drinking despite that it’s causing you physically, socially, with relationships, or at work.
- You consume alcohol in situations that it’s not safe – such as driving or swimming.
- You’ve given up on your hobbies to pursue drinking.
- Your alcohol tolerance is high, and you need more to feel its effects, or you have a reduced effect from similar amounts.
- If you run out, you experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms, including sweating, shaking, and nausea.
Alcohol use disorder often includes periods of alcohol intoxication and withdrawal symptoms. To avoid this, it’s vital that you learn ways to manage your alcohol intake and don’t give in to your cravings. We’ll discuss that below.
Why Do Alcohol Cravings Happen?
Not everyone who cuts back or stops drinking will encounter cravings. That being said, they’re still pretty common, especially for those who drink often or fall into the heavy drinking category – but what causes alcohol cravings?
Brain Chemistry Changes
The longer you consume alcohol, the more noticeable the changes will be in your brain. Eventually, it will begin affecting chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. These are the changes responsible for tolerance. They can also increase your risk of developing withdrawal symptoms. If you aren’t drinking, you could experience heightened symptoms of anxiety, emotional distress, and strong cravings for a drink.
You Form a Habit
Alcohol affects your brain in other ways you may not think of. Many people use the substance to experience positive feelings and improve their mood. For example, having a drink after a fight with your partner could make you feel calmer, or having one after a rough day can help you relax. The euphoria you feel when drinking becomes a reward, causing you to crave a drink as a reward after a challenging situation.
A Situation Triggers You
Cravings often arise as an unconscious response when you’re triggered by a situation. This could be due to a memory or an emotion like stress. Most people who experience these cravings report a mix of internal and external triggers. Internal triggers involve memories, feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations that cause the urge to drink. These include:
- Irritation or anger
- Stress or anxiety
- Discomfort and physical pain
External triggers include people, times, places, and situations you link to alcohol. Some examples include:
- Going to a party where alcohol is involved
- Going to a local restaurant or bar that you typically drink at
- Once your workday concludes
- Getting into an argument with a partner, family member, or friend
Overcoming Alcohol Cravings in the Moment
If an alcohol craving arises, it’s important to have a plan if you don’t want to give in to the temptation. Learning to overcome alcohol cravings the moment it happens and in the long term can help you stop drinking. A good first step is to acknowledge the desire. Although it might be intense and more than you can handle, teaching yourself that it will decrease in intensity and pass in a few minutes is key to overcoming it at the moment—typical cravings last three to five minutes.
You must remind yourself that the craving will dissipate on its own, making it easier to get through those minutes without giving in and picking up a drink. The following strategies will also help you in the moment.
Find a Distraction
Positive distractions are ideal for filling your mind with the thoughts and energy you need to focus on besides your intense urge to drink. Create a list of distractions you can fall into when the moment arises that you can access quickly. Post it on your fridge, keep a note in your phone, or have a journal handy. You can also try the following:
- Turn on a comedy that makes you laugh and pulls you away from your reality for a bit.
- Eat a snack or have a cup of coffee or tea.
- Put on your favorite band.
- Read a book.
- Go outside and take a stroll with a friend, your pet, or even by yourself.
- Clean out your closet.
- Draw, write, or spend time on a hobby.
Other distractions to consider in the moment could be calling a friend, meditating, or hopping in a warm shower to relax.
Call a Companion
Checking in with others in your life, such as a friend or family member, who’s helping you stop drinking can help you ride out a craving, especially since they understand what you’re going through. Even if they don’t know what you’re going through, dedicating your time to remove your mind from the situation and catch up with someone can emotionally support you. Even a short period of happy news, such as hearing about your friend’s baby’s first steps or your parents and their recent travel escapades, can provide you with enough distraction to help the cravings pass.
Remain Present in the Moment
A quote from a famous author Thich Nhat Khan from the Book Art of the Living, discusses this very suggestion: “To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.” Living in the present moment is often challenging, especially when bombarded with alcohol cravings. However, mindfulness exercises can help anchor you in the moment and calm you until the negative feeling passes. Consider trying this:
- Grounding techniques
- Relaxation exercises or deep breathing
- Change your current environment
- Yoga or stretching
Overcoming Alcohol Cravings Long-Term
The coping tips listed above are critical for dealing with alcohol cravings and temptations in the moment. However, these are only short-term solutions. If you’re looking to stay sober in the long term and permanently alter your relationship with alcohol, it’s time to look into a more in-depth approach. We’ll discuss these below.
Learn Your Triggers
If you’re ready to change your ways, the best place to start is to learn what triggers you. Is it people? Places? Situations? When we encounter a person, place, or situation that triggers us to drink, which is followed by intense cravings, avoiding these early in recovery can help you quite a bit. Taking the time to know what they are is a critical step in this battle. Triggers are most intense when you first stop drinking. Avoiding triggers can mean:
- Getting rid of the alcohol in your home
- Stop patronizing restaurants you frequently get drunk at.
- Hang out with friends who don’t drink.
- Change your commute after work to avoid passing the restaurant or bar you frequented.
- Take care of yourself – eat healthier, go to the gym, drink adequate amounts of water, and find sober friends.
Addressing the triggers at the source will go a long way and hopefully prevent you from experiencing cravings that lead to lasting changes. Learning to work through these emotions in a productive manner means you’re ready to take this seriously.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a form of psychological treatment that manages depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, eating disorders, marital problems, and severe mental illness. It’s an incredibly effective approach that operates on several core principles. These include:
- Psychological problems are based on unhelpful ways of thinking.
- Psychological problems are based on learned patterns of unhealthy behavior.
- Those battling psychological issues can learn more efficient ways of coping with them, which reduces their symptoms and makes life easier to manage.
Many people engage in drinking to manage and cope with emotions linked to problematic events, cognitive distortions, and other mental health disorders like social anxiety disorder that was mentioned above. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a leading choice when managing alcohol addiction and reducing cravings. It also lowers relapse rates. It’s an effective standalone therapy option typically used with other treatment strategies.
The therapy uses various coping skills that help you recognize and restructure unhealthy thoughts, such as those you’ll deal with when a craving arises. During an assessment, a therapist will help you identify those triggers and unhealthy coping skills linked to alcohol use. It’s a rewarding process that will help you manage your cravings long-term.
It’s common to stick with a routine you’ve developed. However, addiction can challenge those routines and cause you to break them to feed your alcohol use and stave off withdrawals – you’ll still create a schedule, but around alcohol. If you have a severe alcohol use disorder, it could have something to do with a conditioned response. This is when you come home from work or a stressful scenario, you’ll feel the urge to “unwind” and crack open a beer. It’s good to unwind after a long day, but you’re using alcohol as a coping mechanism, which is incredibly dangerous.
If you realize you have a strong craving each time you sit down and turn on the TV after a fight or long day at work, you must combat it by changing your routine. What you could do is when you get home grab a change of clothes and head to the gym and watch TV from the treadmill. Head to a local coffee shop or go to a friend’s house. It’s important to break your drinking routine and mitigate triggers.
The two most dangerous combinations are addiction and isolation. Humans are not meant to live in isolation, but it could be the quickest path to relapsing for those in recovery. Isolation puts you in a mindset when you reflect on negative emotions, such as being alone. When it comes to addiction, personal connections are vital. An article from Psychology Today describes that addiction is the opposite of connection. Studies examined the relationship between isolation, addiction, and personal connection, and those connecting to others and developing positive relationships were more likely to stay sober. Attending 12-step programs, support groups, and being around family and friends are valuable for those in recovery, especially if you have an intense craving to drink.
Remember the Consequences of Drinking
It’s easy as time passes by to forget about the bad thing that occurred as a result of your drinking. A relapse begins when you start thinking it’ll be different this time than before. You’ll justify giving in to your craving by saying, “It’ll only be one. It’s OK. I’ve worked hard and deserve this.” You often forget about the consequences of drinking the longer you’re sober. You might even forget about what happened the last time you relapsed.
Unfortunately, relapse is sometimes a part of recovery, but what’s important is how you manage it. If you acknowledge it and immediately seek help, you’ll be OK, but you need a clear understanding of what can happen to you or others when you drink. Due to the abstinence violation effect, you won’t have one drink. You’ll tell yourself, “Well, I already had one,” and get in over your head and get into trouble. If it goes well, you might believe you can handle moderate drinking, which is even more dangerous.
A full-blown relapse can lead you down the road to active addiction. If you don’t remember the consequences when you have a craving, all the health problems, relationship issues, and everything negative you encountered before will return. If you harmed your liver or other organs due to drinking, all of the healing you’ve done would be immediately reversed. Respond to your cravings with a clear understanding of what made you stop, to begin with.
If you’re having trouble managing your cravings, help is always available to you. Sometimes, the best course of action is to seek help, especially if you’ve developed an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol withdrawal is incredibly dangerous and can be fatal without the proper intervention. It might be time to speak to a professional to see what you can do to overcome your alcohol cravings and remain sober for the long term. Alcohol is dangerous, and it’s not worth the risk any longer.