Managing cravings can be a struggle for all of us in recovery. This is particularly true during early sobriety. However, learning to address triggers and impulses properly is crucial to long-term success in the real world.
Exiting the bubble of inpatient treatment or detox safely requires skills for not caving to cravings and urges to use or drink. People in recovery are subjected to many stressors when transitioning back into ordinary living. Understanding how cravings and urges work is an excellent start. Let’s discuss the basics of the craving phenomenon and some practical and creative tools for combatting relapse temptation.
Managing Cravings and Urges
To properly nail managing cravings, we must first understand what they are and how they contribute to problematic using or drinking. While the scientific community continues to debate the precise theoretical relationship between craving and addiction, nearly all substance use disorder (SUD) clients experience the phenomenon.
Definitions of craving also vary, but the general consensus is that cravings are strong or even compulsive desires to use. Nearly everyone experiences craving during detoxification, as the brain has come to rely on a substance for comfort. We can’t make cravings disappear, but there are ways to power through them. If we address the thoughts and impulses, we can prevent them from morphing into dangerous actions or relapses.
Use the DEADS Tool for Managing Cravings
The SMART Recovery program offers a simple, evidence-based protocol for managing cravings and urges. Known as the DEADS tool, this is also the second key point of the SMART Recovery program. We will address the basic principles, but SMART Recovery’s free craving worksheet may also be helpful.
The tools in this particular kit are evidence-based, well-established therapies that have been held up under peer review. Let’s talk about the basic things you can do to combat the irrational desire to drink or use:
Deny or Delay
If you get out a timer and watch the clock, you may quickly realize that cravings can indeed be waited out. Research published in the journal Addiction confirms that cravings for most substances subside quickly. With alcohol and nicotine cravings, most people feel relief in three to ten minutes. While these minutes can be intense, beginning with a refusal to give in and delaying yourself on purpose are excellent ways to run out the clock on unhealthy urges.
Identify your personal using triggers. Then, make concrete plans to avoid them. Someone struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD) may need to temporarily avoid events in bars, for example. When confronted with an unavoidable trigger, focus on not allowing the trigger to influence your choices.
Avoid, Accept, or Attack
Accepting that craving is a natural part of SUD helps us manage anxiety. Knowing that you can make it through these uncomfortable feelings helps form a better response. Your “attack” plan for confronting cravings is likely going to be a custom job. Come up with a list of the tools or strategies you can use to resist the urge.
The SMART Recovery program recommends tangible activities. See some of our specific suggestions below for novel ideas. In a jam, anyone can make use of journaling or doodling. While craving is painful, redirecting your mind to leisure or necessary tasks like cleaning can help you coast through the discomfort.
Substitute Problematic Thought Processes
The last step in this process is reflection. Examine the thoughts, feelings, and triggers you believe caused the craving in the first place. Next, consider what healthier habits and thoughts you wish to nurture instead. If you struggle with this step, seek insight from someone you trust. Involving a treatment professional, therapist, or peer sponsor can provide guidance if you’re not sure what to do differently.
Fun Activities for Managing Cravings
One way to exploit the “distract and delay” aspect of managing cravings is to engage in an activity purely for fun. These strategies work well together, and you may have some ideas in mind already. If you have a go-to hobby you enjoy, congratulations. You already have one coping mechanism.
However, the truth is you can’t really have too many in recovery. If you don’t know where to begin, that’s okay. Recovery is a great time to experiment with new pleasures. Explore some of these options next time you are experiencing cravings or urges:
- Reading or writing for pleasure
- Crossword puzzles, word finds, jumbles, or mind benders
- Knitting or crocheting
- Tabletop and card games
- Sports and exercise
- Art activities
- Chewing gum or hard candy
- Animal therapy and experiences
- Get in the kitchen
At West Coast Recovery Centers, we know that managing cravings can take some trial and error. This is one reason we offer many tools, activities, and even adventure therapy. We find our clients do very well with proper support and access to an abundance of options. It’s okay and expected that you will be out of your comfort zone. Developing new ways to self-soothe will help you in both early and long-term recovery.
Craving management is just one aspect of recovering from substance misuse. It is all too easy to get into our own heads or self-sabotage. This is one reason to seek support from peers and professionals. Isolation and lack of coping skills can damage an otherwise healthy process. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we believe in arming our clients with every available scientific and spiritual tool for recovering in the real world. We find that our clients adjust better to life after SUD with education and help from others. If you have questions about substances, recovery, or our services, call us at (760) 492-6509 today.