Alcohol is undoubtedly the most socially acceptable drug. While it represents an occasional and enjoyable indulgence to some, others develop more complex relationships with drink.
It’s crucial to recognize that not everyone who abuses alcohol meets the diagnostic criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder (colloquially better known as “alcoholism,” of course). Many people find themselves at a point where alcohol plays an increasingly prominent role in their lives — telling themselves they’ll stay sober after every drinking session, but reaching for the bottle the very next day.
Have you promised yourself to stop drinking (for a day, week, month, or even forever)? Does that commitment fade away as soon as you’re confronted by personal drinking triggers? That’s a good sign that you’re at risk — and quitting alcohol is the best gift you can give yourself.
Discover effective ways to learn what triggers cravings and stop them in their tracks here.
What Are Cravings?
Alcohol cravings can informally be defined simply as “wanting a drink very badly” — sometimes to the point where you can think of little else.
Research isn’t yet clear whether cravings have a biological component or are purely psychological, but we do know that even people who have been sober for many years can develop alcohol cravings in certain situations.
Cravings can be mild (relatively easy to ignore) to severe (extremely hard to resist). When you don’t take a drink, the craving will eventually subside — and you’ll be glad you didn’t give in to the internal voice that told you to drink.
Identifying Your Triggers
Successfully “riding out” alcohol cravings becomes easier when you learn to identify your personal triggers. Everyone with a problematic relationship with alcohol has them, but people aren’t always aware of the situations that tend to lead to cravings.
Triggers come in two main forms — external and internal.
External triggers are those within your environment. They can include:
- The time — many people start drinking at a certain point in the day, such as after work.
- Places — your brain tricks you into thinking it’s time to take a drink when you arrive somewhere you used to drink alcohol.
- People — seeing a former drinking buddy or someone who stresses you can induce a craving.
- Situations — you may be hit by cravings after an argument, during the holidays, while getting ready to attend a party, or while watching a sports match, for example.
Internal triggers come from within. Feeling stressed, angry, sleepless, anxious, shy, or sad can all trigger alcohol cravings.
You probably recognize a few triggers as you read this, but there might be others. Try to uncover them all to develop a comprehensive anti-craving plan. Keep a notebook handy and write it down whenever it’s hard to resist alcohol. Then, if the trigger isn’t immediately obvious, analyze what about that situation caused the craving.
Switching Your Routine Up to Avoid Cravings
External triggers are usually easier to avoid — many people can break their established patterns by changing their routines and environments. In other words, switch things up. Make sure that you’re no longer in the same situations that persistently lead to cravings.
- If you used to drink after coming home from work at 6 pm, go to the gym or your recovery support group first. Then, when you do get home, spend time engaging in a new hobby, tidy up, or invite someone over.
- If visiting your parents always makes you want to drink, don’t — invite them over instead.
- If anniversaries trigger cravings, don’t mark them in the same way. Find a new approach.
- If seeing old friends causes cravings, it’s perfectly healthy to avoid them (for a while), especially if they are still drinking.
All these examples involve disrupting your old patterns — so your brain stops associating these situations with alcohol and making cravings less likely.
Not all patterns can be changed completely, of course. You’ll still have to go home. Even something as simple as sitting in a different chair could decouple the association with alcohol that’s developed over time. The good news? Every time you make it through a triggering situation without giving in to temptation, the link weakens. Eventually, you’ll be free.
Facing Your Internal Triggers
Internal triggers are often harder to cope with — we go to great lengths to avoid pain, and the urge to run away from our problems is a powerful cause of cravings.
Many people benefit from professional help to develop healthy coping mechanisms. Should you face extraordinary stress, grief, PTSD, or other serious problems, don’t hesitate to try therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which helps you recognize problematic thought problems so you can replace them with healthier ones, is often a good choice.
In the moment, however, you can get pretty far by acknowledging that alcohol cravings are always temporary. Alcohol is calling out to you, but you can say no. Try to:
- Learn about healthy and delicious non-alcoholic drinks that can mimic the sensory aspects of drinking alcohol — without the consequences.
- Develop a mantra to counteract your cravings. It might be “I’m stronger than alcohol,” “Think, don’t drink,” “I’m free to be sober,” or any other short phrase that resonates with you.
- Reach out to someone who can help you through the craving, whether someone in your recovery group, a friend, or even a helpline.
- Distract yourself until the craving passes.
Effective ways to distract yourself depend on the situation. They include following along with an exercise video, playing a (video) game, going for a walk, drinking a large glass of water, taking a bath, phoning a friend, or watching a movie.
You might like to read our article about Movies about Overcoming Alcohol Addiction.
Not everyone is comfortable telling others they’re quitting drinking and having a hard time. If you are, you can gain useful allies who will keep you on the path. Telling others that you’re quitting alcohol is useful for two reasons:
- You’ll be less likely to find yourself in triggering situations when the people in your life are actively working to create a sober environment.
- If you find yourself craving a drink, you can let someone know. That person can distract you or actively talk you out of giving in to temptation.
A Final Word
Battling alcohol cravings isn’t easy — but we promise it gets easier over time. Alcohol’s hold on you gets progressively weaker every time you ride out a craving successfully, and eventually, you’ll learn to recognize cravings for what they are: a hangover from a past you’ve actively decided to leave behind.