Even after years of abstinence and success in recovery, a person can still have drug or alcohol cravings. You would think that these memories of the past wouldn’t feel so fresh in your mind, but for some reason, they do. This article will explain what cravings are and how to deal with them, even for those who’ve been sober for a while.

What Are Drug & Alcohol Cravings?

Craving is a critical aspect of understanding drug motivation for “[n]early all modern comprehensive theories of addiction.” It is one of the main reasons a person develops an addiction in the first place. Craving is generally defined as an overwhelming urge to use drugs or alcohol. This urge can cause a person to say and do whatever it takes to obtain relief. 

According to an article published in Neuropathology of Drug Addictions and Substance Misuse in 2016, “[d]rug cravings are ingrained memories of the act of taking drugs as well as memories of the pleasurable effects.” This understanding can help explain why cravings occur even after years of being sober. 

This insatiable appetite develops after prolonged substance use and is one of the major triggers for relapse. The urge is so strong that self-control can feel near-impossible, leading a person to seek out the substance with unwavering persistence. While individuals going through withdrawal tend to feel this symptom more acutely, time does not completely rid one’s memory of past use. 

Stress Can Lead to Cravings  

Stress is a major trigger of drug and alcohol cravings. While some can manage stressors effectively, others have a harder time and relapse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that “stressful life events are associated with a reduction in a person’s chances of remaining abstinent for at least 3 years.” Learning coping skills to manage stress effectively is essential to relapse prevention. 

One reason stress is so significant is that it impairs the prefrontal cortex that is involved in concentration, judgment, and planning. As a result, you will have trouble regulating your behavior and impulses. Cravings will be much harder to resist. 

Those on the verge of relapse tend to go through a rationalizing process where they convince themself of things like, “I can handle it just this once. I’ve quit before, so I have no problem quitting again.”

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Not Everyone Is Just Looking to Get High

Contrary to what some may believe, drug or alcohol misuse is not always a matter of craving feelings of euphoria. For some people, cravings are a matter of trying not to feel bad. While sober, an individual may be depressed, anxious, or suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Their sober reality can feel unbearable under the heavy load of stress. Poor stress management skills resulting from an unresolved mental health condition could be a trigger just waiting to be set off. A dysfunctional and unsafe living environment is also a highly triggering situation that should be avoided. 

The Stages of Relapse 

Relapse is a common and expected event that occurs during the recovery process. Even years after being sober, cravings can still occur. Being aware of the three stages of relapse can help you identify the warning signs that your sobriety is in jeopardy.  

The first stage, the emotional stage, is characterized by the emergence of negative emotions that can overwhelm one’s ability to cope effectively. This is the stage before cravings take hold. You may become anxious, irritable, or depressed. 

Changes in mood, energy levels, sleep patterns, and appetite can occur as well. If you find yourself abandoning your normal routine, isolating yourself, and failing to show up at therapy or 12-Step meetings, you may be in the emotional stage of relapse.

The mental stage comes next. This is when dangerous ideas start to flow through the mind. Individuals in this stage actively consider using again to relieve the discomfort experienced in the emotional stage. Have you been reminiscing and romanticizing past use? 

Don’t ignore these kinds of thoughts. Justifying and calculating how you could get drugs or alcohol is a slippery slope that leads you to the third stage: physical relapse. This is the stage characterized by drinking or using the drug.

Coping With Your Next Craving 

You should find comfort in the fact that cravings are completely normal for individuals recovering from an addiction. You’re not unusual or weak for experiencing them. The substance has induced chemical changes in your brain that cause compulsions. You should also know that cravings don’t typically last that long.

If you can find something to distract you for the next 15 to 30 minutes, you can get through it. Drink a cup of water, go for a walk, clean the house, or call your sponsor. Focus your attention on something a bit challenging, like doing push-ups or drawing still-life. Have any puzzles lying around? Find an activity that won’t leave much room in your mind for anything else.

One tip from Alcoholics Anonymous is to H.A.L.T. and evaluate your situation. Are you too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? Take inventory of how you feel throughout the day and take breaks to care for your needs. If needed, you can enroll in an outpatient/aftercare program that can help you freshen up your stress management and relapse prevention skills.

Even after years of progress in managing a drug or alcohol addiction, you can still get cravings. Managing these urges requires that you pay close attention to your emotions and thoughts. Self-awareness and patience can really help. Hawaii Island Recovery is the Big Island’s number one substance abuse treatment facility. We treat a long list of addictions and offer a variety of paths to recovery. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) are just two of our high-quality treatments. We also offer experiential therapy, a unique program designed to cultivate awareness by inspiring feelings of connection, purpose, and wonder. See the world through a new lens on rainforest hikes and interactions with marine life. Even if you’ve been sober for a while, check out our outpatient/aftercare program. You’ll have the chance to sharpen your stress management skills and learn to cope with cravings with confidence. Call Hawaii Island Recovery at (866) 390-5070.

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