The Ultimate Alcohol Cravings Toolbox
Do you have the habit of living your life forwards but understanding it backwards?
Is hindsight always 20-20?
Do you ever prepare for pitfalls?
Do you ever set up goals, outline a plan of action, and execute with precision?
If you’re newly sober the chances are your answer is a resounding no.
Perhaps not in other areas of your life but as Alcoholics Anonymous bluntly though accurately states,
Battling the “strangely insane” aspects is par for the course.
It must be battled with tact, strategy, and accountability.
Impulsivity and chance have no place here.
Rather, intentionality and a solid plan is required.
Plan Ahead To Stay In Control
This “strange insanity” presents itself as cravings.
It’s very normal, but normalcy does not equal easy.
Severity depends on a host of issues, but in degree, the physiological and psychological aspects are inescapable.
Keywords that are common to this topic such as urges, mental obsession, or cravings refer to that strange insanity.
It’s really just a range of thoughts, physical sensations, feelings, and emotions that tempt you to drink.
You may have a desire not to drink, but usually, this feels like being in a paddleboat up against a tidal wave.
Moreover, when you have 1 thought providing a solid reason why you shouldn’t take the drink but 37 thoughts to the contrary, now you know why. It’s not a moral failing – it’s a dense limbic system hijacked by the addiction.
This tug in two different directions is extremely uncomfortable and presents as an ensuing loss of control. I’m sorry to say, understanding it doesn’t equal the absence of discomfort.
Luckily, urges to drink are short-lived (though they don’t feel like it!) and predictable (though they seem to come out of nowhere!), and controllable (yet appear to be directing the show!).
The trick is learning to dis-identify with the physical sensations.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has made strides in this regard, enabling you to recognize what is occurring in your body, remain emotionally neutral from the occurrence, and strategies to cope with it.
If you are having a very difficult time with urges, or do not make progress with the strategies presented, then consult a doctor or therapist for support. In addition, some new, non-habit forming medications can reduce the desire to drink or lessen the rewarding effect of drinking so it is easier to stop. Employ wisdom and leverage every available resource.
Two Types Of Triggers
External triggers are more obvious, predictable, and avoidable than internal triggers, so this is where we will start.
The early recovery slogan “stay away from people, places, and things,” might feel superficial but it’s actually very wise advice.
Will this keep you sober? No. But it will provide you space to form new habits.
Internal triggers are a bit more elusive and confusing; they often seem to just appear for no conceivable reason.
It could be a fleeting thought, positive or negative emotion, physical sensations, or all of the above.
Whatever it may be that triggers the urge, and it could be a host of things, I’m going to primarily focus on methods to dealing with these cravings and urges when they arrive.
8 Methods To Deal With Cravings To Drink
There are many ways to manage and reduce urges and cravings.
If only we had a one size fits all technique, like a simple formula that guarantees results.
I do believe, however, we can offer invaluable strategies and if practiced you’ll find one that fits you.
It may sound silly, but it’s similar to going to a shoe store and using the Brannock Device prior to your purchase; you know, the instrument that measures the width and length of your foot?
You can’t get the measurement if you don’t put your foot in the device.
In a like manner, you won’t find the craving strategy that works for you until you earnestly try them all.
All of these methods compose the craving Brannock Device.
The following methods are based on empirical research, and the data suggest that using them can improve your ability to manage and reduce cravings.
Admittedly, we still have a great deal to learn. But as noted earlier, get your foot in that device so we can find shoes that fit!
- Keep Track Of The Urges
- Avoid Triggers
- Distract Yourself
- The DISARM Method (The 3 D’s)
- Urge Surfing
- The KO’d Method
Keep Track Of The Urges
Here are some good reasons to keep track of your urges:
I know this might sound tedious – it may feel altogether pointless, but I can assure you it has innumerable benefits.
For starters identifying your triggers is half that battle.
When you can see what provokes certain states of consciousness, specific emotions, and physical sensations, you gain a sense of control.
No longer are you at the mercy of your environment, you’re at the helm and navigating a treacherous land, but behind the wheel no doubt.
It also enables you to separate yourself from the craving.
Behind the wheel, you can watch this take place. It’s happening to you, but you are not it.
If I’m driving off-road, the bumps can do some serious bruising, but eventually, I’ll get back on the road.
I’m not identified with the bumps. I’m certainly not under the impression that they’ll last forever.
What am I getting at?
Tracking your urges crafts a map that enables you to see that triggers aren’t always there and things aren’t always getting worse.
The urges come and go with the lay of the land.
They can feel like shit, without question.
When triggered the urges can create anxiety, fear, discomfort, and panic but they can’t actually hurt you as the off-road adventure can.
The urge is sending you a message.
It’s saying: “deal with me!”
Getting drunk or high used to be one of those ways, but those days are over.
They only compound the issue now.
Now you need to lead other ways to deal with your anxiety and manage your stress.
I highly recommend you begin to keep track of your cravings and urges using a variety of different resources. RethinkingDrinking, is a government resource that provides an excellent worksheet, click below to access it.
Let’s face it, sometimes the urge is damn near overpowering.
It seemingly drops from the top ropes and delivers a powerful brain buster – you just feel like you don’t stand a chance.
This is why early on it is prudent to avoid certain triggers.
If you filled out the above worksheet you should have identified what they are.
This is why sometimes alcoholics early on in their sobriety take another route home from work. They avoid the bar and the trigger altogether.
Or, perhaps Friday nights is your wild party night.
Well, it would be wise to avoid that trigger by planning to do something constructive rather than destructive on Friday nights.
Maybe go to a meeting or support group. Maybe set up dinner with a close friend or spouse. Maybe a date night – dinner and a movie? Hit up the gym and use a dedicated exercise routine.
Make a plan and stick to it.
This is a simple but very powerful goal.
If you’re honest with yourself, you likely realize you’re extremely outnumbered.
Sometimes the triggers are inescapable.
They surround you from every angle.
The feelings seemingly beat you down into submission.
What the heck do you do then?
Well, sometimes a healthy distraction is your best bet.
I find ACT Defusion exercises can really help grasp your attention and distract you from the mental chaos you may be experiencing.
One example of a defusion exercise is to envision yourself tossing pebbles into a creek. Maybe each pebble has a name: anger, frustration, worry, fear, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, discomfort, etc.
Just sit there next to your stream casting pebbles. Then check back in after a little while.
Other strategies can be as simple as doing something you love: go fishing, ride a bike, play with your kids, whatever.
Check back in again. If the urge is still high in intensity, try something else.
Recall my shoe analogy – find what fits!
The Disarm Method (The 3 D’s)
If you step back and view the cue as a signal you can dis-identify with it.
Sure, the signal is instructing you to take a drink or get high but it doesn’t have control over you.
If I get a letter in the mail instructing me to burn down my house, it’s unlikely I will follow the asinine instructions.
I would chalk it up as ludicrous and maybe even call the cops.
Of course, the trigger to drink causes feelings, usually very uncomfortable ones, but that’s just the brain trying to motivate you to continue the habit loop.
One of my favorite strategies I discovered in the SMART Recovery handbook called DISARM.
What’s great about this method is that you can disarm the urge by leveraging what I call the 3 Ds:
- It enables you to Distance yourself from the negative self-talk of the urge.
- It allows you to Disidentify with the feelings of the urge.
- It permits you to Demobilize the intensity of the urge before it kicks into gear.
1. Name the Urge (Distance)
This exercise is ancient.
The idea of personifying elements of the self is tried and true.
For example, the Hebrews constantly appealed to Lady Wisdom & Lady Folly – particularly in the book of Proverbs.
The Greeks (e.g. Lady Philosophy) consistently did this as well.
The idea is to take a specific human attribute and describe all of its features as an entity in its own right.
Thoroughly done, this practice can provide you with a stronger grasp and richer understanding of the urges makeup.
When you turn folly into an actual person and use various adjectives to delineate its personality, you can more readily see it arise within yourself.
A more contemporary spin on it is the devil and angel on the shoulder. One directing you down a less than profitable path and the other instructing you to follow a higher path of morals and temperance.
The figures (devil and angel) help you understand the shapes these emotions take and in doing so enable you to have power over them.
Because you are not them! You are something else, something neutral, something more conscious.
Now consider addiction.
Alcoholics Anonymous calls the addictive voice (obsessive thoughts, physical cravings and urges) “the disease.”
“Don’t listen to it man, it’s just your disease,” says the sponsor to his sponsee.
In Rational Recovery, it’s referred to as “The Beast.”
Moreover, their entire program is built upon AVRT (Addictive Voice Recognition Technique) that simply personifies addiction and separates you from that voice.
SMART Recovery follows on RR’s heals.
The handbook is quick to point out that destructive self-talk may go on inside you, but it’s not you.
You’re then instructed to name the urge as if it were another being.
Buddhists call it the chatter of a thousand monkeys.
Whatever you decide to call it, do your best to make it real.
Imagine you are being called to court to testify against this being in great detail.
They need a solid character description and illustrations of its pernicious behavior
Hold nothing back.
Create distance between you and it.
You’d be surprised how much power this gives you.
2. Awareness (Disidentify)
Now that you understand the mechanics of a habit and have personified all its characteristics into a living, breathing, being, you should be able to identify its comings and goings.
My generation watched the show Full House, and you always knew when Kimmy Gibler was about to enter the room.
You felt her presence before she arrived and though somewhat unpredictable, you knew what to expect for the most part.
With practice you’ll grow in awareness.
This awareness will enable you to discover your urge right before it hits the stage.
You’ll know those red flags and won’t be so blindsided.
Does it minimize the discomfort?
But you begin to have control over it’s intensity because you’ve become the director on the set.
This is beyond empowering.
You’ve shifted the locus of control to yourself.
The ball is in court.
3. Refusal (Demobilize)
As you distance yourself from the urge through personification and disidentify with it through awareness of the urge’s mechanics, you firmly demobilize its capacity to take control.
Since the ball is in your court, you can promptly refuse any participation in its nonsense.
You’ve disarmed it.
With a decision not to drink you no longer even consider the possibility.
It’s your top priority and you can do it because you’re in control not the urge.
You don’t have to reason with it, any more than you have to reason with the hundreds of other irrational thoughts you don’t act on on a daily basis.
There is no debate.
It’s your show, your script, and your life.
Since the urge is an entity separate from you, you bench it.
It doesn’t have the right nor the capacity to engage without your permission.
And guess what?
Permission is not granted.
Meditation and mindfulness are popular for one reason: they work.
Mindfulness is really the translation of a Sanskrit term that could be better understood as “present moment recollection.”
Meditation and mindfulness can help control the autonomic nervous system and curtail negative and undesirable automatic physiological and psychological responses.
Could you imagine the sheer power you would have over your urges if you can control these responses?
What’s even more fascinating about is it’s largely outside the realm of examinating habits and challenging irrational thoughts – it’s basically anchoring the wild mustang mind in the stables of the body sensations.
For a big list of meditation exercises, I would check out Refuge Recovery’s meditation resource page ==> Check out their resource page here.
Also, MindfulnessExercises.com has an abundance of free and paid resources. I highly recommend anything Sean Fargo offers, the entire business is overflowing with incredible resources for the newbie and seasoned practitioners alike.
My favorite mindfulness exercise, however, is called Urge Surfing.
I actually like to call it Surge Surfing because the urge usually feels like a surge of insanity crashing all over your being.
If you survive the surge, there is little doubt the emotional riptide won’t finish you off – at least that’s how it feels.
The concept behind urge surfing, developed by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), is to treat that surge like it’s a swell you’re about to ride at south beach.
The swells ebb and flow, but they don’t last forever. The wave resembles various physical sensations tearing through your body.
Your goal is to pay attention to them – you are not them – and ride them out until they completely discharge.
==> Check out my article on Exposure and Response Prevention, it’s extremely relevant to this discussion.
The KO’d Method
You can also do this in three basic steps, I call it the KO’d (knocked out!) method:
- Know The Urge
- Observe The Urge
- Discharge The Urge
Avoidance and distraction have their place and can help get through tough spots, when the monkey is on your back and urge seemingly has you beat.
But if this is all you have in your arsenal, it’s only a matter of time before you’re swallowed hole.
Really, you need a confrontation.
We know that the brain puts a high value on immediate gratification.
The more you up befriend your urge, and really get to intimately know it, the further the drink becomes.
Why? Because you’re not giving in.
It may sound insane if you’re currently going through a craving.
But this is how we are by design.
The more you expose yourself to the triggers and surf out the urges the easier it gets over time. The physiological process called “Habitation” enables you to move from response prevention to response intention.
You are responsible for your choices. Yes, urges can influence the difficulty level, but you can do something about it. And we know it, because it’s how we are designed!
Habitation is basically the reality that nervous system arousal decreases on repeated exposure to the same stimulus.
This is why sex therapists routinely tell their clients to “spice things up,” a clever euphemism for doing something different!
“This mechanism is hard-wired into the human genetic program. It has clear adaptive value because habituation to familiar stimuli allows more energy to be directed to novel stimuli, hence improving the odds of survival…”
Therefore, this is how we are by design. I know we love to think we are all terminally unique but we are more like unique apps on one specific operating system.
Right? If it’s adaptive then your body and brain by design will see the threat as genuine and will fortify all defenses to ensure that threat is henceforth avoided at all costs.
That’s why if you are terrified of socializing and you avoid it that it goes from uncomfortable to paralyzing. You’ve calibrated your design this way. Yet, this is good news! Why? Because if you hold the wrench, then the ball is in your court to change it!
Isn’t that incredible?
Know The Urge
Assess the urge from an objective standpoint.
Think of yourself as a scientist analyzing an object; a dispassionate observer of sorts
Notice the thoughts and feelings.
Get to know the thoughts; the outlandish cognitive distortions that accompany the physiological sensations.
Observe The Urge
Is your heart racing?
Do you experience tension in your muscles? Is your stomach tight? Are your fists clenched? Are you perspiring?
Notice the sensations. Observe them. Watch them come and go.
Get curious about the phenomenon in which you are partaking.
Discharge The Urge
The discharge is often prompted by questions and affirmations.
Questions such as:
“Will I really go crazy if I don’t give in to the urge?”
“It feels like it will last forever, but does any emotional state last forever?”
Better yet, “what evidence do I have that this will be my permanent emotional habitat if I don’t buy the garage the urge is pushing?”
Turn up the volume…
Talk to yourself – shout it from the rooftops if you have to.
Start declaring the reasons you have for changing.
Start professing all the things worth it in your life.
Start voicing all the things you’re grateful for.
Get the big picture in view.
If you have to, tell the urge to piss off and get back under its microscope where it belongs.
The urge is just a case study now…
Once you begin to practice this consistently, do you understand the power you’ll have on your next encounter?
Yes, the urges will still come involuntarily.
But now you see it for what it is.
Incredible, isn’t it?
Additionally, this holds true to all other habits and negative states of mind.
You now have the ability to traverse any mental landscape.
You now own the map to victory and freedom.
I would be remiss to not mention various drugs that can aid in minimizing cravings and urges. Vivitrol, Naltrexone, and Campral to name a few. Consult your doctor if this is an avenue you wish to explore further.