We’ve all been there. Day three, or day twenty-three. Sitting down on the sofa at home, leaving the office, walking through our best friend’s door, or having a bath as you always do. It’s something you’ve done hundreds of times, but now you’ve decided to commit to an alcohol-free lifestyle. That same old feeling hits you… ‘Mmmm I fancy a nice glass of [insert your tipple of choice]’. Temptation or cravings hit us seemingly unexpectedly, and it feels like there is nothing we can do to make them go away. Or even know how long they will last for, before we can spend a day un-tormented by them. But, understanding cravings better can help us get through them. And thankfully, scientists have spent some time doing just this.
Firstly, research has found that cravings are cue induced.
They are an emotional response to a learnt habit. So, theoretically, remove the cue that triggers the craving, and you’ll remove the craving. Say you used to have a pint of beer on your way home from work every Friday, and now, along with that Friday feeling you get a craving for that pint of beer. As you walk past the pub, that craving is so strong you almost feel like you’re being pulled inside. The question to ask would be: how can I remove the cue? Walking a different route home that misses out the pub completely, or replacing it with a new habit, like walking the longer way, along the canal or through the park as a treat on a Friday, could help.
Although replacing or removing some cues are easier said than done. Say your cue is sitting down to watch the TV with your family after dinner. You’d usually have a glass of wine and so that’s the cue that triggers your craving, making your new alcohol-free life really difficult to stick to. Are you supposed to never sit down on your sofa again? Or sometimes that cue could just be a thought – ‘It’s 7pm, I’d usually get a glass of wine now’, or ‘I’ve had a stressful day and I deserve this’. How can you avoid these habits of thought which are cueing your cravings?
One way is to meditate.
By meditating, we practice taking back control of our mind and directing our thoughts. As we meditate we simply want to observe our thoughts, watching them as if they were cars and we were sitting on the side of the road, observing them drive into our line of sight (aka our awareness), and then out of sight. We might say ‘hello thought’, then ‘goodbye thought’ as we let it leave our attention. Now and then we will get caught up in a thought, and that’s normal, but as soon as we realise, we bring ourselves back to observing. In this way, we literally start to rewire our brain through a process of neuroplasticity. We begin to think differently and have more control over our thoughts. So that when a thought-cue, like ‘I’ve had a long day and I deserve a drink’, triggers a craving, we can notice it for what it is, and then let it go. Observing it enter our mind and then choosing to let it pass. Meditate for just 5 minutes a day and you’ll benefit from this cognitive rewiring, to help you control cravings triggered by thoughts.
Secondly, research found that cravings actually increase over time, until they peak.
After that ‘D-Day’ of giving up, cravings steady increase. So factoring this into your alcohol-free journey could be a helpful thing to do. One study* found that alcohol-dependant study participants cravings actually peaked at 60 days. Cravings get more and more intense, until they peak and then drop off, which although might seem like a long time, is helpful to know, when you worry cravings will never leave you. Another way to deal with cravings, is to provide ‘natural rewards’ which can help us to outsmart cravings. Research** has found that natural rewards, such as saving the £20 you spend in the supermarket on wine each week and booking a weekend away with a loved one with that money, can help beat those cravings. Providing small perks in your environment can also help to resist cravings – for example, joining a book club or yoga class, or our support group here at OYNB, that can give inspiration and ideas on new challenges such as getting fit alongside your alcohol-free habit to get maximum benefits from your new lifestyle, for more natural rewards.
Ali Roff is a Mindfulness teacher, Psychology BSc graduate and Editor-at-Large at Psychologies magazine.
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* Incubation of alcohol craving during abstinence in patients with alcohol dependence,
Peng Li et al., 2014, Addiction Biology.
** Grigson P. S. (2008). Reward Comparison: The Achilles' heel and hope for addiction. Drug discovery today. Disease models, 5(4), 227-233