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
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 TriggersExternal 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.
PeoplePeople 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.
PlacesHigh-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.
SituationsThose 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?
Dealing With TriggersOnce 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.