ARTICLE SUMMARY:There is no way to completely eliminate drug cravings. However, you can learn to live with them…and get through them. This article reviews why cravings occur and offers three practical ideas on how to cope.
To start to understand a craving, we need to look first at how drugs work in the brain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), experts used to think that a specific chemical neurotransmitter (dopamine) produced by drugs creates an extreme feeling of well-being. However, the reality is that the way drugs work in the brain is a little more complicated than that.
Today, scientists now think dopamine has more to do with getting us to repeat pleasurable activities (reinforcement) than with producing pleasure directly. Large surges of dopamine “teach” the brain to seek drugs … while other, healthier activities such as exercise, creative pursuits, relationships, or even sex, get sidelined.
The Definition of a Craving
So, what is a craving, exactly?
Well, take away the drug-of-choice…and the need to feel pleasure still exists. Our natural ability to feel pleasure can take some time to return as the brain returns to normal function. This is why people often feel the following in the first few months of addiction recovery:
The technical term for this is “anhedonia”. For some drugs – like meth, cocaine, heroin, or painkillers – it can take months or years for the brain’s chemistry to return to normal. And the amount of time it takes for the brain to return to homeostasis after a period of addiction will vary by individual.
What’s important to know is that most of us are physically unable to enjoy things that were previously pleasurable. And naturally, we consciously and subconsciously seek out pleasure…to make life fun! This is why drug craving is natural outcome of drug use: it is a physical or psychological urge for your drug-of-choice.
A craving is a deep yearning for the effect of your drug-of-choice.
A craving can come out of the blue. It can also be”triggered”. Indeed, most cravings are usually prompted by a trigger. Triggers include external stimuli such as:
Other external stimuli
Triggering situations affect the area of the brain called “amygdala”. When a triggering situation occurs, the amygdala sends signals to the other parts of the brain reminding you of your drug-of-choice. The amygdala regulates functions such as memory and learning, so you are in the company of a person, or in a certain situation that somehow reminds you of your previous addictive behavior… reaching for drugs again is a program running in your brain. The trigger sets of a pattern of decision making that can spiral you into an unconscious decision to use.
During this process, you may even experience sensations such as shaking, cramps, anxiety attacks, nervousness… etc. A craving sensation can literally nearly take control over a person. However, you can stay in control by knowing the brain science behind them.
Cravings occur as the result of powerful memories linked to substance abuse. When a trigger occurs, the amygdala lights up and in a moment, you can nearly feel the pleasure of your drug-of-choice. But cravings come and go. They do not last.
They key to coping with cravings is to anticipate triggers and learn to avoid them. A craving may never go away compltely…the learned “reflex” can last a long time, even in people who haven’t used drugs in many years. Like riding a bike, the brain remembers. Cues that are linked with drug use can trigger uncontrollable cravings whenever you experience the cue, even if the drug itself is not available. However, you can stay in control of a craving and learn to ride it like a wave.
Are Cravings Normal in Recovery?
Almost every addict in recovery experiences craving. In fact, cravings are a very common and normal part of addiction recovery. The urge to take your drug-of-choice is rooted in brain chemistry.
Again, they key is to be aware that they happen. When cravings appear out of nowhere they tend to take us by suprise. And if they come out of the blue, a craving can be sudden and very unpleasant. Indeed, the sudden and impulsive nature of cravings are one of the key factors for relapse.
Therefore, it’s highly recommended that you ask for help when they strike. This because you’re working with long term memory association in the brain. A trigger can not be “deleted” as easily as people think. So, because cravings act as “automatic” and unconcious desire,s it’s best that you seek help from mental health professionals in order to manage them.
A counselor, psychotherapist, social worker, or addiction doctor can help you to plan for cravings and teach you tools and strategies for managing them.
Are your thoughts preoccupied with your drug-of-choice?
Can you literally taste your drug-of-choice on your tongue?
Do you experience a strong desire to see old friends?
Do not worry, these are all normal.
What you do next is key!
What Do The Experts Say?
Ph.D. Adi Jaffe defines cravings as programmed responses to environmental signals that have been connected to drug use through experience. His advice is that when you have a craving, recognize it for what it is. If the experience is overwhelming, make sure there’s someone you can talk to about it (a therapist, partner, parent, or 12 step sponsor). As time passes your cravings will become less and less frequent, though without specific treatment, their intensity will likely not go away. Like he says, cravings are a part of the reality of addiction – knowing what to do with them is a key to success.
“Everyone who’s engaged in addictive behavior will experience uncomfortable cravings (“I want it badly”) and urges (“I have to do it now”).”
Again, this experts notes tha they are normal. And fortunately, h reminds us, they always pass with time. At the outset of recovery, they can be pretty intense, but each one will subside if you can wait it out and have a plan for relapse prevention. Cravings and urges will decrease in strength and frequency over time. You can make this happen by adopting some coping strategies that work best for you.
3 Ways to Cope: How To Work with Cravings
1. Learn your personal triggers.
Being aware about the things that are associated with your addiction past is the first step towards learning how to take control of them. Most people are not aware about which things signal a craving. This is one of the main tricks of cravings. If they are not consciously recognized and registered they tend to act as automatic occurrences forcing your attention on using.
Cravings may present themselves in any form, but the key thing is learning to recognize your personal triggers. When you are able to detect your personal triggers, you can avoid them. In fact, many professional recommend that you list alternatives to avoid certain people, places, smells or situations which can bring up old, unhealthy habits.
2. Find a new brain circuit to reinforce pleasure. Or, occupy your mind.
It’s vital as you identify triggers, you also look for other activities to replace drug use. The brain is re-programmable. So, here are some ideas for what you can do when cravings strike:
Ask for guidance and help from a trained treatment professional.
Change your routine.
Distract yourself: Read a book, see a movie, or talk to a friend.
Do something spontaneously from your bucket list.
Go out for a walk or exercise for 20 minutes.
Practice mindfulness meditation.
3. Actively create a safe, healthy and drug-free environment.
We are creatures that hunt for reward. The need to satisfy your cravings and/or desires is based on availability. When a drug-of-choice is completely unavailable, we are forced to shift our attention elsewhere. Know this about your own human nature and bring health into your environment.
In sum, eliminate all the possible triggers from the place you live and the places you go and the people you hang out will at least make you feel safe. Take responsibility for what you surround yourself in. Then, adjust your lifestyle accordingly.
Hotlines such as SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP.
Mental health providers can engage you in the following treatment modalities:
12-Step meeting facilitation
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Individual Therapy or Group Counseling
We hope this article offers practical guidance and some useful ideas about how to get through cravings in addiction recovery. In case you still have a question or want to share a personal experience… please feel free to use the comments section below. We try to answer all real-life comments personally and promptly, or refer you to an expert in case we do not know the answer.