I am an (almost) 33 year old mother of three. I have been an alcoholic for almost 12 years and have tried to quite a plethora of times. I am currently on day 3 now and have been reading the Mrs D. blog. It has been helping so much and nice to be able to relate to something. As much of what she talks about is me. Except......(EEK!) I was up to 14 bottles of wine a week.
I keep my mind concentrated on something else, reading, sorting a cupboard, cleaning something, putting out clothes for tomorrow, scheduling my diary, reviewing the day, planning for tomorrow, reading this site, writing a shopping list, and i have something really nice to drink to help the taste buds. This not only gives my brain something else to work on but doing these things gives me back my control and makes me feel good about myself and cravings are always easier to deal with when you feel positive. Remember the actual craving does not last long someone told me 2 minutes but I’ve never timed them.
On the SMART Recovery website, after registering, look under the RESOURCES tab. There is a boatload of tools,techniques, and exercises for getting past craves and so much more. A favorite is to play the tape forward. Another is to jump into a task like clean out a drawer or Marie Kondo the whole house one craving at a time.
Hi @kjpeche This is a great question… “What do you do when you “ride out” a craving?” We spend a lot of time talking about how important it is to stop drinking and how things get better eventually, but we easily overlook one of the absolute basics… how to overcome the cravings that are driving the demand to drink.
Cravings don’t come randomly, they are “triggered” by a part of the brain called the “reward system” It is a part of the brain that operates completely automatically; we can’t stop it happening, we aren’t aware that it is happening and we can’t ignore what happens.
Cravings are an urgent sense of wanting, desire or longing for. They have no words, sound or shape; they are an intense feeling without form. Cravings may appear to come and go in a fickle manner, but they don’t come randomly at all. They are the results of processes which happen inside our brain, and these processes operate completely automatically; we have no insight into the part of our mind that generates them, and have no direct control over it. We can’t see what’s happening there, we can’t modify these actions by applying judgement or deliberate thought, and we have no way of turning them off or ignoring them.
Cravings come from the cooperative action of several parts of the brain, and these are collectively known as the “reward system”… it is where our problem with alcohol begins.
The reward system isn’t new, nor is it unique to humans. About 500 million years ago there was a significant evolutionary advance that gave certain animals a major advantage over others. This advance was an automatic system in the brain that encouraged doing things that were beneficial to survival and discouraged doing things that were harmful: the reward system.
The reward system works by invoking feelings of wanting, longing for, or desire for things that are beneficial to us, and then motivating us to approach them. For things that may be harmful we experience feelings of disgust or fear, and we are motivated to move away. But we aren’t born knowing all the things that help or harm us; we learn new ones as we go along. As our life experience grows we learn more and more things that are good for us or bad for us, and for each the appropriate behaviour is remembered: approach or move away. In this way we progressively advance our chances of survival. When we meet something beneficial or harmful that we’ve come across before; a circumstance, place, thing, etc. then our brain automatically encourages us to follow the prescribed course of action; e.g. approach and eat, or hide or escape. When we take the action our brain has suggested as being a good way to act for this occurrence then we are given a reward. If we were being encouraged to do something beneficial for survival then we feel the longing for it, are encourage to approach and partake, and then as reward we feel pleasure. If we are being encouraged to avoid something harmful then we are given fear, or disgust to make us move away, and we feel relief when we do so. The sensation of pleasure or relief is caused by the release of a chemical in our brain called dopamine.
The reward system is a self-learning process that operates entirely automatically. It does not require conscious thought; indeed, there is no conscious involvement whatsoever. We do not know it is operating, we have no direct control over it, and we don’t know when it has found new objects, events, situations, or activities of significance. What we do know is that we get a sudden yearning for something or a sudden revulsion… even though we might not be immediately aware of quite why.
In alcoholics the reward system latches onto alcohol as something very beneficial and urges us to drink when it is available or nearby. It recognises circumstances that yield alcohol and forms a new process for each of them, we call these drinking triggers, and each time we drink in a new circumstance then a new trigger is formed. But another feature of the reward system is that it reinforces successful triggers. If we were encouraged to seek alcohol by a trigger, and then did so, then this trigger was a successful one. Successful triggers are more valuable than unsuccessful ones, so the brain strengthens the successful ones: the intensity of the urge to do this again is increased, and so is the intensity of the surge of pleasure we get on securing alcohol. The “aaahhh!” sense of ease and comfort that we get on taking our first drink does not come from alcohol (it happens far too quickly!); it is the reward system in operation. The surge of relief or please comes from the burst of dopamine. It is the “reward” of the reward system.
Finding alcohol becomes increasingly important. The urge to find and move towards it becomes stronger, and so does the sense of relief we get when we secure a drink. Each time we drink alcohol in response to the craving launched by a trigger then the reward system increases the importance of that trigger: it increases the intensity of the craving, and it increases the intensity of the “aaahhh!” we get on taking the first drink. It is a vicious cycle that leads to us drinking more, drinking more often, and it strengthens every time we drink in response to a craving. Once this starts to happen then the act of drinking increases the desire to drink, and the reward system enters a runaway state with regard to alcohol. But cravings don’t just urge us to drink; they also urge us to carry on drinking once we have started.
The reward system evolved to improve our chances of survival, and it doesn’t just encourage us to do beneficial things like partaking of nutritious foods, it also encourages us to take maximum advantage of them while they are present. The intensity of the craving induced by a trigger depends on how often that trigger has been successful, but also how close the object of the trigger is. Alcohol seen in the distance draws us less than alcohol that is close, but this relationship is not proportional it is exponential. This means that when we open a bottle of wine for example, we tend to finish the whole bottle rather than simply take one glass, because once we have started drinking then we are in the presence of alcohol and the intensity of the cravings induced is raised dramatically. The same happens if we walk into a bar. When there we are in close proximity to alcohol and will be subject to continuous and powerful cravings. Once we start drinking we are likely to continue while alcohol is still close.
A drinking trigger is formed for each circumstance which has yielded alcohol. When we are in that circumstance again then the reward system initiates a craving. If we drink in responses to that craving then the trigger was successful and its importance is increased: the next craving we get from that trigger will be stronger. This is how over time our reward system creates more and more triggers that create cravings urging us to drink, and this is how those cravings become incredibly powerful. Eventually they become so plentiful and so powerful that we are triggered to drink in virtually every part of our day.
There are a few key things to know about drinking triggers and the cravings they cause. Everyone who is trying to stop drinking needs to know these. 1. A new trigger is formed for every new circumstance that yields alcohol 2. Cravings get stronger the more times we drink in response to the trigger that launched them 3. Cravings get stronger the closer we are to the circumstances of the trigger 4. Cravings have limited duration 5. The cravings induced by a trigger get less powerful every time we DO NOT drink in response to the craving
We don’t get to achieve lasting sobriety because we get better at resisting cravings. We get lasting sobriety because we deny cravings and they reduce in intensity so that they are no longer completely compelling.
It’s taken a long time to get here, but this is where we get to answer your question. “What do you do when you “ride out” a craving?”
In order to achieve a lasting sobriety we have to not drink, and not drinking means denying cravings in order to make them get progressively smaller and smaller. When it comes to actually stopping drinking then it is items 3,4 and 5 in this list that are paramount… we can use these to help ourselves.
We have quite literally hundreds of drinking triggers to deal with here, so at first it isn’t possible to even identify which trigger is causing a craving… virtually everything sets one off. To make matters worse, we don’t actually even have to be physically in the presence of the circumstances of a trigger for it to be fired… just imagining those circumstances will set it off. So for example, if we think about people partying (drinking) then we will be triggered… just daydreaming about a party invitation we’ve declined to avoid being close to alcohol is enough to launch a craving, and one idea leads to another and another and pretty soon we’re overwhelmed with huge cravings. We do this to ourselves!
There’s nothing we can do to avoid cravings. We can be very disciplined about what we allow ourselves to think, but this is always an intervention after the event… so by the time we realise we’ve thought something that will launch a craving it is already too late…. So how do we overcome them?
Item 4 in the list is “Cravings have limited duration”, and we can use this to really help ourselves. There are three essential approaches to overcoming any single craving: Delay, Distract, and Deny. All aim to get us past the peak of the craving. If we can hold off for a few minutes then the craving will pass its peak and we will regain control… this is the aim in delaying. But there is a very real challenge with this approach: while we sit and endure the craving we think about it… and this brings forwards other related ideas that are also triggers and so as we sit we are constantly re-triggering ourselves and bring on more and more cravings. It is the hardest way to deal with the problem. There is a mindfulness technique called “urge surfing” that trains you to observe the experience of the craving without engaging with it, but in the early days of sobriety the cravings are so intense that few people are able to achieve the calm necessary to make this work successfully.
Distraction is the biggest tool in the armoury: we need to take our mental focus off the craving to let that single craving fade and also to prevent firing similar related triggers that make the craving period last longer.
The key to distraction is engaging in an activity that will completely occupy the mind over and above the insistent screaming of a powerful craving… and this is a high bar. Simple activities won’t really work as they don’t occupy enough of our brain: there is still space for the intense craving thoughts to persist. Things that work well are tasks that involve both concentration and hand-eye coordination. There are lots of things we can do that do this; cleaning, tidying, making, moving, weeding, painting, mending, building and so on. But not only will these tasks carry us through until the craving has passed and demand our focus so that we don’t re-trigger ourselves, we can use them in another way… to make ourselves feel better. If we do a job that’s been outstanding for a while, something that makes a clear difference or improvement, then we fill feel a sense of accomplishment in addition to beating the craving.
We know that cravings will come and we know that they’re going to be very challenging. So anticipation is our ally here; we can prepare for when the craving hits: make a list of things to do to beat the craving and prepare whatever we might need so we can go straight to the doing of the task.
Every craving denied is progress… it is by denying cravings that we make them fade away, so beating cravings isn’t just a good thing to do, it is vital, and that brings us to the last of the three ways to fight cravings: deny.
If the cravings simply can’t be overcome… it is too insistent then we are still able to beat it if we have denied ourselves the opportunity to drink even though (in the moment) we want to. There are many things we can do to help ourselves to do this; don’t have alcohol anywhere we can get to it, don’t go into places that alcohol is sold, be accountable for where we are at all times… we can build our own set of tools here that match our own circumstances.
This turned into a bit of an epic, but we are not at all powerless with regard to cravings if we understand them and prepare to meet them. Over time the power of cravings falls away and other challenges assume greater proportions: our emotions, biased memory, and the lies our minds create. But the biggest and fiercest early challenge is the cravings. The better we anticipate and prepare for them the more we help ourselves overcome them.
Hi @kjpeche If you would like to understand a bit more about “the reasoning behind why we do things” then you can download a free copy of my book “Alcoholism in a nutshell” here (written under the name Stan West): https://lyingminds.sixboats.co.nz/links/ It was written to explain to people how drinking alters our emotions, distorts our memory, dominates our thinking and makes our brains lie to us. The ebook is made available for free to anyone that has use of it.
I find nothing much actually distracts me from the craving and despit all my mechanisms, the craving is still there. For me it’s more about what makes the time pass most quickly during the craving. I have a good AF drink on hand always. I sometimes eat some junk food. TV. A book. Drawing (or whatever hobby). If it’s really bad and I think I’m going to cave and read sober blogs endlessly. And I repeatedly tell myself “welp, too bad, you’re not drinking so just get over it” (Of course, I can’t JUST get over it – but this statement helps because it pushes away any waffling thoughts I might have. Decision made. Whether I like it or not.
In the beginning I used to bargain with myself and delay. I’d make little deals: I’ll just wait a few more hours and see; I’ll decide in the morning whether I still want to drink then (I never did want to drink the next morning); I’ll just do another half hour, well now it would be a shame to spoil it and I’m almost through this evening, so I’ll just do one more half hour…. yes, play it forward is a great one, yes immersed myself in blogs and this site so I had a perspective that supported me. Mostly now I take a mental step back and try to notice it as if it’s a train passing through. Here it is, I might be shaking from the impact but it’s not me, it’s passing through. I try to make as much mental space around the craving as I can. I’m feeling it but it’s just a feeling and if I don’t latch on, it will go. I slow my breathing and breathe into my belly, ground into my body. I try to focus on something in the room, the shelf, the window; whatever. Somehow that helps. Mentally I try to observe the gap between me and the craving, or the craving and my reaction. A member once here described that as ‘mind the gap’. Hard at first, it was such a strong sensation and there wasn’t a gap. But with practice it comes, I can have the experience and see the experience at the same time. In that gap I try to feel into what else I’m feeling, or needing or wanting. Mostly I want something else. Connection, touch, not to feel, shame…. For me paradoxically what sometimes works is to give myself permission, because above all I don’t want to be trapped. I tell myself as kindly as I can that I can choose, I can have a drink if I really want. Often it fades the minute I do that. Because I don’t want a drink. I just don’t want to be trapped. Well this turned into a book didn’t it. Mrs D wrote an article on ‘surfing the urge’ – you could find that on a search under the blogs here if you wanted to have a read.
I love this gap idea @liberty and will try to practice this when necessary. I don’t want a drink anymore, never did. I always just wanted to be drunk instead but how else does one get drunk. The ancient Romans were known for standing on there heads and injecting alcohol enemas into their bottoms. Sounds a bit messy to me.