Alcohol addiction, also known as alcoholism, is a disease that affects people from all walks of life. Experts have tried to pinpoint factors like genetics, sex, race, or socioeconomics that may predispose someone to alcohol addiction. But it has no single cause. Psychological, genetic, and behavioral factors can all contribute to having the disease. One of the major obstacles to recovery from alcohol use disorder is having to deal with cravings for alcohol. Cravings are response patterns that are programmed in people and appear as a result of environmental conditions, changes in mood, stress, or other types of triggers that prime these response patterns. Although sometimes cravings may appear to simply come out of nowhere, they are most often triggered by some environmental situation, feeling, or memory that one has about former alcohol abuse.
From sugar to caffeine to opioids, anyone who has quit an addictive substance understands how tough it is to get through cravings. Knowledge is power, so here’s some basic information on cravings to help you understand what’s happening in your body and mind when the urge to drink, use, smoke, or grab a brownie hits.
Can you see the signs of alcoholism?
Alcohol addiction can be difficult to recognize. Unlike cocaine or heroin, alcohol is widely available and accepted in many cultures. It’s often at the center of social situations and closely linked to celebrations and enjoyment. Drinking is a part of life for many people. When is it common in society, it can be hard to tell the difference between someone who likes to have a few drinks now and then and someone with a real problem.
Some symptoms of alcohol addiction are:
- increased quantity or frequency of use
- high tolerance for alcohol, or lack of “hangover” symptoms
- drinking at inappropriate times, such as first thing in the morning, or in places like church or work
- wanting to be where alcohol is present and avoiding situations where there is none
- changes in friendships; someone with an alcohol addiction may choose friends who also drink heavily
- avoiding contact with loved ones
- hiding alcohol, or hiding while drinking
- dependence on alcohol to function in everyday life
- increased lethargy, depression, or other emotional issues
- legal or professional problems such as an arrest or loss of a job
As an addiction tends to get worse over time, it’s important to look for early warning signs. If identified and treated early, someone with an alcohol addiction may be able to avoid major consequences of the disease.
How addictive is alcohol?
Alcohol can be a highly addictive substance, especially when consumed in large amounts within a short period of time. Alcohol addiction develops in several stages. The process of addiction may begin with the first drink, with physical and mental factors that can escalate quickly. Like any other addictive drug, alcohol affects the brain’s chemistry. When a person drinks alcohol, the drug causes their brain to release the neurotransmitters, which are chemicals responsible for signaling (among other things) pleasure and reward. In the brain, alcohol increases the effects of neurotransmitters that slow the body down while also decreasing the effects of neurotransmitters that speed the body up. The combined effect results in many of the intoxicating effects of alcohol.
What are triggers for alcohol cravings?
Triggers and cues are different names for the same type of situation that leads to a priming or activation of a craving in an individual. They can be very personal and subjective in nature, or they can be quite generalized and occur over many individuals. The effects of cues and triggers produce both physical and mental changes that eventually are interpreted as a craving.External triggers are more obvious to recognize and control than internal ones. Alcohol abuse treatment strives to help patients understand the initial warning signs of relapse and acquire healthy coping skills to prevent a possible relapse.
External triggers are objects, places, people, and activities that evoke cravings linked with alcohol use. Patients in recovery can be sheltered from the risks of external triggers by producing strategies to avoid triggers that prompt their prior alcohol use. Patients should also be able to fight their alcohol cravings when they’re in triggering circumstances.
People who are closest to the alcoholic could be a cause of cravings that ultimately lead to relapse. It is unsafe for patients in recovery to be around friends and family who are consuming alcohol.
Even peers who refrain from alcohol can be hazardous. Offering alcohol to a former addict could trigger emotions that urge an alcoholic to use again.
High-risk places remind former alcohol abusers of the times they engaged in drinking to get drunk. Driving or walking through areas where alcoholics used to drink may spark a recollection related to alcohol use.
Those who are at risk of relapse should avoid stressful circumstances that could urge them to start consuming alcohol again. Individuals can find different ways to avoid high-risk situations such as happy hours or events where they previously would hang out and binge drink.
A person can identify the feelings that could trigger a relapse by questioning themselves:
- How do I feel before consuming alcohol?
- How do I want to think before drinking alcohol?
- Within the last week, how did I feel when craving alcohol?
Patients in recovery must be conscious of the internal triggers they struggle with most and have a method ready to seek support.
Dealing With Triggers
Once you are aware of your triggers, you can decide how you want to deal with them. For some triggers the best plan is to avoid them, especially in the beginning. For example, some people find that they need to avoid social gatherings with alcohol.
Other triggers, like stressful life events, cannot be avoided. However, you can take control over unavoidable triggers by anticipating ways to handle them. If you are faced with a trigger that causes a craving you can:
- Reach out to a sponsor or other sober support.
- Attend a 12-step or other recovery meeting such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Use distraction by changing the scenery or engaging in a hobby.
- Avoid stressful situations during an intense craving.
MAT (Medically Assisted Treatments) for Alcohol Cravings
Medication-assisted treatment programs exist to help individuals remain substance-free when entering and throughout recovery. For severe addictions, detoxification is often the first stage of recovery. During a medically supervised detox program, individuals rid their body of substances and prepare for inpatient treatment. This process may involve the use of medications to ease symptoms or help taper off the use of substances. Medically assisted treatments (medications) attempt to address cravings by affecting the actual physical process associated with the craving and then eliminating the strength of the craving in the person. There are numerous medications that have been used to address cravings for alcohol.
Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances in the nation, and many people are high-functioning alcoholics or people who live with heavy alcohol use disorders every day. These people may have been abusing alcohol for years, which makes treatment for alcohol dependence more complicated. Medications can help alleviate withdrawal symptoms and ease cravings so a person can remain fully focused on healing and committed to recovery.
What is the outlook for alcoholism and alcohol cravings?
Early treatment of alcoholism is most effective. Addictions that have gone on longer are harder to break. However, long-term addictions can be successfully treated. Friends and family members of people who have an alcohol addiction can benefit from professional support or by joining programs like Al-Anon. Someone with an alcohol addiction who has remained sober for months or years may find themselves drinking again. They may binge drink once or drink for a period of time before getting sober again. But a relapse doesn’t indicate failure. It’s important that the person get back on track and resume treatment. Ultimately, sobriety is the responsibility of the person who has the alcohol addiction. It’s important to not enable destructive behaviors and to maintain appropriate boundaries if the person with the alcohol addiction is still drinking. This can mean cutting off financial assistance or making it difficult for them to fulfill the addiction.
Managing Alcohol Cravings and Addiction with Harmony Ridge Recovery Center
You don’t have to go through recovery alone. Many people who struggle with alcohol addiction find it difficult or impossible to quit without the help or support of others. There are many professionals and support groups designed to get you the help you need. Increase your chance of a full recovery with the help of a dedicated treatment center. Contact our team today to learn more!