For those of us well into our recovery journeys, we may be more skilled at recognizing the signs and symptoms of cravings when they inevitably surface. Cravings are not always an obvious desire to drink or use drugs. They are often more pernicious, slowly growing as we reminisce about people or activities from our past lives in active addiction and providing an inroad for a full-blown urge to use. Cravings are a common obstacle in recovery and often lead to relapse if we do not identify and manage them. If you are new to recovery or are unfamiliar with what cravings feel like, it is important to learn about others’ struggles with them so you can recognize when you are experiencing cravings of your own.
No matter your substance of choice, your initial stages of recovery will likely involve triggers, withdrawal symptoms, and cravings. These obstacles in recovery may be difficult to overcome if you haven’t learned to label your feelings and experiences. Labels do not help in every case, but in recovery, labeling moments of distress can provide insight into the root cause of your feelings. This can help you accept your emotions instead of fighting them as you learn new ways to cope, ultimately leading you on a healthy road to recovery.
What Are Cravings?
Cravings do not always occur immediately after stopping substance use, nor do they necessarily subside with time. They can be difficult to predict, spontaneously occurring months or even years after you quit using a substance. Some cravings last minutes, while others persist as intrusive thoughts over time. Knowing the signs and symptoms of different cravings can help you to recognize and move through them. Common mental experiences of cravings may include:
- Intrusive or compulsive thoughts about your substance of choice
- Feeling a desire to use substances when you are around other people that use them
- Feeling a desire to use substances when you think of or look at something that reminds you of your use
- Wanting to reconnect with people you used substances with from your past
Cravings can also negatively affect your overall mental and physical well-being, causing symptoms like:
- Insomnia or other sleep problems
- Poor appetite
- Anxiety or depression
- Irritability or impatience
- Mood instability
- Poor distress tolerance
- Vivid or frightening dreams
These signs and symptoms overlap with general reactions to stress, making it sometimes difficult to define what a craving is and what it is not. One of the best ways to cope with cravings is to identify their root causes or the inciting incidents that lead up to them. For example, if you are experiencing a desire to use marijuana, you might trace it back to a restless night of poor quality sleep the prior evening. If you still hold the belief that you would sleep better if you were still using, this could be the cause of your craving. This belief can be overcome by consciously labeling it, challenging its validity, and ultimately replacing it with a belief in line with your values to stay sober. Any thought that causes you to reminisce on your past use in a positive light might lead to a craving.
Why Do Cravings Occur?
Cravings happen because of how addiction works in the brain. Cravings are associated with physiological and psychological changes occurring in the brain as it heals from drug use. When you use drugs of any kind, your brain adapts. With repeated substance use, the brain experiences larger and more significant changes as it builds a tolerance. A sober brain experiences feelings of pleasure and reward through healthy activities like exercising and eating. When a person uses drugs, their brain becomes conditioned to connect their drug use with a profound sense of reward. With compulsive use, a person suffering from addiction becomes tricked by their own mind, thinking that the drug is the only thing that can provide them with relief and pleasure.
How Can I Overcome My Cravings?
It is important to understand that cravings are temporary. The strength of a craving is affected by a person’s substance of choice, duration of use, and the overall intensity of their addiction. If a person used drugs at more frequent and higher doses, it may take longer for cravings to subside. Therefore, it helps to remember to be patient with yourself. You are working to retrain your mind to acknowledge and endure cravings. Every time you let go of an intrusive thought, you are one step closer to having a mind that is less susceptible to cravings.
Some suggestions for ways to overcome cravings include:
- Avoiding the people, places, and things that trigger cravings
- Keeping a log that tracks when a craving occurs and what potentially caused it
- Recalling moments of clarity when you realized your substance use was causing you problems
- Imagining the negative consequences of using
- Observing the craving moment to moment and watching as it weakens over time
It also helps to keep your schedule busy with healthy replacement behaviors. This can help you to avoid triggers and be proactive in your own recovery. Healthy behaviors might include:
- Engaging in a healthier diet
- Spending time with positive people
- Learning new skills and hobbies
- Listening to your favorite calming playlist
- Practicing mindfulness
- Setting goals for yourself and for your recovery
Cravings are a common experience that follows stopping substance use. The longer a person uses a substance, the stronger the cravings will be when they resolve to abstain from use. It is essential to understand and recognize cravings so that you are able to acknowledge and heal from them. Cravings cause mental and physical discomfort similar to natural responses to stress. You can distinguish between everyday stress and cravings when you consider if you are reminiscing about using again, even for just a moment. Cravings occur because your brain is trying to heal itself from repeated substance use, working to disentangle feelings of pleasure and reward from drug-seeking behavior. West Coast Recovery Centers recognize that cravings can act as a significant obstacle to healing. We want to guide and support you while you recognize your experiences of triggers and cravings during your recovery. To learn more about the treatment we offer, call us at (760) 492-6509.