Getting Past Cravings: What You Really Need to Know
It’s one thing to be around supportive individuals and counselors when you are in rehab for alcohol or drug abuse and have ready help to deal with cravings and urges that rock your world. It’s another to have to actually deal with them once you’ve completed treatment.
For many in early recovery, just the thought of having to go through cravings is enough to send them into a fit of anxiety. And that’s just putting it mildly. Of course, it does depend a great deal on what kind of addiction they’ve overcome in treatment, as well as how long they were addicted, other physical or psychological conditions that may be present, home and work environment, attitude and a slew of other factors.
Sounds like a pretty tall order, being on your own and somehow managing cravings, doesn’t it? Well, it doesn’t have to be all that difficult. You just need to have a strategy and be willing to be flexible in implementing it. What do we mean? What do you really need to know about getting past cravings? We’ll cover it here.
There’s Nothing Wrong with You
Right upfront it’s important for you to realize that there’s nothing wrong with you if you’re having cravings. This is a common occurrence for those who are in early recovery from addiction.
Naturally, knowing that experiencing cravings doesn’t make you abnormal or weird doesn’t help get rid of them, but it certainly is a start. And when you’re in early recovery, you should recognize that you’re taking small steps toward healing but these are incremental stepping-stones toward building a solid foundation in sobriety.
Get over Feeling You’re Being Punished
Another point that needs to be made is that many who are new to recovery and go through a period of virtually nonstop cravings, or cravings that reappear every day, sometimes multiple times a day, may feel like they’re being punished for their addictive past.
This is total nonsense and does absolutely nothing to help you get past cravings. Punishment implies that you’re being held accountable for your actions. While it is true that you do need to take responsibility for what you said and did that may have caused harm to others and yourself while you were addicted and you do need to begin to make amends when and wherever possible, you are not being punished because you were addicted. It simply doesn’t work that way.
Cravings and urges are your body’s telling you that it wants those substances, it craves those drugs or alcohol, and it will ream your brain and wrack your soul until you either learn how to manage them or give into them.
But punishment? Nope, it’s not applicable here. So get over any thought that this is what’s going on. The simple truth is that cravings and urges are a sign that you’re on the road to healing. Sure, you have to learn how to master them, but this is totally something that you can do, with a little help, of course.
Ready, Set – Wait!
Before you go all gung-ho and tell yourself that you’ve got this, you’re going to banish cravings from your life, you first need to take some time to put together a strategy for how to actually deal with them when they occur. And they will occur, sometimes when you least expect them. Actually, that’s when they usually crop up, so you need to be ready for that.
Where do you go to come up with a strategy for overcoming cravings? Were you paying attention during rehab when this was covered? Not to worry, many people tend to haze over a lot of what is presented to them during treatment. After all, your body is going through the beginning stages of healing after detox and you’re still quite raw and vulnerable. It’s normal that you may have missed some important elements of how to cope with cravings once you returned to your home environment.
But we’ve accumulated some tips to help you get going on this all-important task. Trust us, it does get easier.
Cravings are Time-Limited
The first thing you need to know about cravings is that they don’t last forever. They are what is called time-limited, as in they only last a certain amount of time. While this isn’t fixed in stone, generally speaking, cravings last between 15 and 20 minutes, or a maximum of about 30 minutes.
This isn’t an extraordinarily long period to go through, so the key point to remember is that you only need to get through the time that the cravings last and you’ll be on your way toward being able to effectively manage them.
How do you get through this gut-wrenching (because you really don’t want cravings derailing your sobriety) time? What can you do that will make it go faster or take your mind off picking up a drink or using? Good question. Let’s cover some of the techniques that have proven effective for others.
Tips for Dealing with Cravings so they go away
First, a caveat is in order. The following tips may prove helpful in getting you past cravings, or they may need to be combined in order to be effective. What worked in the past may need to be revised, so keep an open mind and be willing to be flexible as you craft your strategy for dealing effectively with cravings.
- Recognize what’s happening. Before you can act to get rid of an unwelcome thought, desire or craving – to pick up a drink, to use, to gamble, or engage in any addictive behavior which has plagued you in the past – you need to recognize what’s happening. Acknowledge that what you are experiencing is a craving or desire to resume your additive behavior. Actually voice that acknowledgement, as in: “I know that what I am thinking is just a craving, a desire to go back to my addiction.” By voicing your recognition of the thought or craving, you are deflating its power. In essence, you are stopping it in its tracks, removing the forward momentum that, if left unchecked, could propel you into giving in. Once you recognize the thought/craving, you are ready to move on to the next step.
- Try distraction. Thoughts that tempt you to use or engage in addictive behavior (such as the urge to join your friends at the bar, where you know you’ll get into trouble), are generally short-lived, as we’ve already covered. Their purpose is solely to get you to succumb to the sometimes overpowering desire to resort to your previous comfort zone of using. One technique that is often very effective is simply to use distraction to get your mind off of the craving. Don’t worry that you won’t be able to fight it off forever. Right now, you’re only interested in this moment, today. Use whatever kind of distraction that works for you. Tackle that pile of bills or paperwork that’s been accumulating. Work on a crossword puzzle or Sudoku to engage and challenge your mind, and get you through a half-hour period. If your mind is occupied in thinking about something else, it can’t be filled up with cravings. There’s no room for it – at least for now. Some individuals in recovery have reported great success in counting, or reciting the alphabet forwards and backwards, or trying to memorize or recall passages of verse. The good news is that after 15 or 20 minutes or so, the unwelcome thought or craving is usually gone, or at least greatly dissipated.
- Do something physical. Whenever you find yourself caught up in negative thoughts and cravings, it could very well be a time to do something physical. Why not a workout at the gym or at home using weights, elliptical machines, treadmills, exercise bikes, stretching bands and stability balls? You could also go for a brisk walk or hike in the neighborhood, nearby community park or recreation area. Join a sports team in your community and play basketball, soccer, floor hockey or another competitive sport. Find a buddy and take up racquetball or tennis or go swimming. Again, this can be at home (if you have a pool and the weather permits), or at the beach or indoor athletic area.Why is getting physical exercise so important in helping to get past cravings? For one thing, vigorous physical exercise produces endorphins in the brain. These are the body’s natural feel-good chemicals that do exactly that – make you feel good. Physical exercise jump-starts not only your metabolism but also your spirits. For another, physical exercise helps tone your muscles, trim away excess inches and pounds, beefs up your cardiovascular system and helps your organs function better.
If you’ve been a couch potato or never engaged in much physical activity up to this point, start slowly and build up your stamina. You might want to begin with stretching exercises and a short walk of an easy pace for about 15 to 20 minutes. Do this several times a week. Then, increase the time and pace of the walk to 30 to 45 minutes and a moderate pace – and still do it several times a week. The more you do it, the easier it will get. After another week or two of this pace, step it up some more so that you’re at maximum (brisk) pace and walking or hiking for at least one hour – and do this five times a week. The beauty of using walking or hiking as physical exercise is that you can do it anywhere – in the parking lot, the mall, the park, neighborhood, beach, etc. – and you don’t need any fancy equipment, just a good pair of walking/hiking shoes.
- Mind stimulation often works well.Up to now, you may have begun to believe that your life in recovery is just making it through the day. Well, the truth is that life isn’t only about existence, so don’t let it be that way for you. What better way to enrich your existence than to encourage your mind with creative or stimulating activities? You could start off reading books that you’ve always wanted to get into but somehow never found the time. If you don’t have a list of titles that interest you, check out the New York Times Bestseller list and find one or two that you like. Go to the library or bookstore and browse through them to see if they are intriguing. You don’t have to buy the books, either. Libraries lend out books, often for free or only for a nominal membership fee if you live in the neighborhood. You can also sit in the library and read through the books, periodicals and magazines for free. This is another good way to stimulate your mind and do something that gets your mind off your cravings – and it’s free.Another way to stimulate your mind is to be creative in an artistic endeavor. This could be oil painting, charcoal or watercolors. Maybe it’s jewelry making or cabinetry or gardening or cooking. The act of being creative utilizes the part of your mind that requires imagination, dreaming, conceptualizing the abstract and making it into reality. Creativity helps banish unwelcome thoughts and cravings and gets you past the period when they’re tugging at your mind.
- Take care of your body’s nutritional and sleep needs.It’s amazing how often we forget to take care of the basics, in this case, what we eat and how much sleep we get. When you first come home from rehab, your body may not be at its best. You might still be having nightmares or they may just start to disrupt your sleep. But if you’re unable to sleep or sleep well, this contributes to a feeling of unsettledness and being not up to par in the morning. After several nights or weeks of this, guess what? You’re more vulnerable to cravings that can slam you upside the head, your sleepy head, we might add.Similarly, what you eat is also important to your overall health and well being. You need a balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables – the fresher and more organic, the better – lean meats (avoid fatty, high-marbled meats), fish and poultry. Avoid white bread and rice and foods high in carbohydrates. Also steer clear of too many desserts with their empty calories and watch your salt intake. Too much salt increases your blood pressure, which increases fluid retention and can contribute to a feeling of malaise – a perfect breeding ground for unwelcome thoughts and cravings. If you’re feeling out of sorts, the tendency for cravings to overpower your determination to stay clean and sober magnifies. Do yourself a favor and get your nutrition and sleep routine into balance.
- Take time to meditate and clear your mind. While you might not think that emptying your mind of cluttering thoughts would be helpful in banishing cravings, many in recovery have found that meditating does just that. Think that meditating is out of your comfort zone? Maybe that’s because you don’t know much about it. The practice of meditation isn’t all that difficult. You can buy books, CDs and DVDs on the subject, or obtain instruction from a certified meditation practitioner. Boiling it down to the basics: You get into a comfortable sitting position on the floor, close your eyes, empty your thoughts, and breathe in and out deeply while concentrating solely on the sound of your breathing. The rhythmic and repetitive nature of the breathing helps soothe your troubled nerves and calm negative thoughts, emotions and cravings. Do five to 10 minutes of meditation once or twice a day and you’ll find your mind clear of the intrusions of unwelcome cravings.
- Get out of the house. Being by yourself is not a good way to deal with cravings and urges. Don’t sit at home and stew about what’s going on in your head. Get out and be with friends (sober ones). Do something physical that gets your adrenalin going naturally, such as competitive sports, a workout, running, or a recreational activity that you do with a group, like whitewater rafting. You can also involve yourself in purely social activities. Take a friend out to dinner or go to see a movie, play, or sporting event with one or more friends.
- Relaxation techniques can also help.Anger, stress, frustration, anxiety and depression are all powerful triggers that may cause cravings the opportunity to come at you out of the blue and keep you from doing what you want or need to be doing for your recovery. How do you deal with these emotions so that you can curtail cravings? One way that others have found to be effective is learning how to relax. There are many different kinds of relaxation techniques, including meditation, yoga, Pilates, massage, prayer, biofeedback, and deep breathing exercises, among others.Learning how to relax also gives you the opportunity to take a class and get involved with a new set of acquaintances, people who may become friends over time. You may need training in order to become familiar with the poses or techniques or breathing patterns of the particular form of relaxation. This is a great way to utilize several of your coping strategies: get out of the house, be with people, be active, and learn how to relax.
- Watch out for boredom.When you’re bored, your mind becomes restless. You seek stimulation, action, something to get out of this state of inactivity. The solution may very well be to plunge into a new activity. You already know that when you’re actively involved in pursuing something you enjoy, your mind will be fully engaged – and not prone to giving into craving temptations.Keeping boredom at bay may mean scheduling your days and nights so that there are plenty of activities to occupy your time. Of course, you need to rest. But put in a full day’s worth of activities – some physical, some mental – so that you never need to worry about boredom setting in.
Sometimes a Combination of Strategies Works
Considering the fact that each person is different in how they react to certain situations, it’s not unreasonable to believe that some of the aforementioned tips may not work for you, or may not work as well as others you learn about from your sponsor or fellow 12-step group members. It’s quite possible, for example, that relaxing paves the way for cravings to become even stronger. Maybe what will work best for you is a combination of strategies in order to stave off cravings. Or, you may need to find something entirely different. Not every coping strategy is listed here. And, not every strategy or coping mechanism works for everyone. If it were that easy, cravings would be completely eliminated.
Also, give yourself the credit you deserve. As you no doubt have heard many times in your 12-step meetings, it isn’t the fact that cravings occur, but what you choose to do about them.
The bottom line is this: Do what works for you and keep at it. You may create a new method of working through cravings that you can teach others so that they may benefit from your experience.