How Can I Control Alcohol Cravings?
It can be confusing and disorienting to suddenly experience a craving for alcohol after months or even years of sobriety.
You may be aware of all the reasons that you initially entered recovery and have no desire to fall back into your addiction, but still the temptation to have ‘just one drink’ may persist in the back of your mind.
A craving is not a signal that you must drink again, but rather an opportunity to reexamine your recovery strategy and gain a greater understanding of your potential triggers.
What are alcohol cravings?
Drinking alcohol can produce a sensation of euphoria and pleasure which can make you feel happier and more confident than usual due to a flood of reward chemicals.
Our brains associate this sensation with the act of consuming alcohol and as a result, it can crave more of these reward chemicals when we are feeling lonely or depressed, or when we experience a specific activity, object or person that reminds us of alcohol. 
This craving may come as a surprise to many people who have successfully completed a treatment programme and have been living happily in recovery for a number of months.
Cravings come with a range of physical and psychological symptoms that can be uncomfortable and difficult to deal with.
You may believe that having one drink will alleviate these symptoms and allow you to continue on with your day, but this is a slippery slope that will likely result in a full-blown relapse.
Common symptoms of alcohol cravings include:
- Lack of appetite
- Irritability and agitation
- Feelings of depression and anxiety
- Insomnia, trouble falling and staying asleep
- Lethargy, fatigue and low energy
- Feeling confused and disconnected
When a craving strikes, it’s easy to believe that you have the strength to have ‘just one drink’ without sabotaging your recovery.
Unfortunately, this is not the case, and as a result, cravings can be extremely difficult to resist.
You may have many nostalgic memories around drinking alcohol that could potentially cause you to temporarily forget about the many negative consequences of your addiction.
It’s normal to experience cravings after completing treatment for alcohol addiction, and it is possible to manage and eventually overcome these sensations with a handful of simple techniques and a more thorough understanding of your own unique triggers.
What can trigger an alcohol craving?
Certain events, activities or objects have the potential to remind us of alcohol or perhaps the sensation of being intoxicated.
This may include walking past the wine and beer aisle in the supermarket or even watching a character in a film takes a sip of brandy.
It can be difficult to pinpoint specific triggers, as each individual person will likely have unique circumstances that may cause them to crave alcohol.
It’s important for anyone recovering from alcohol addiction to understand and acknowledge their triggers while creating an action plan in order to manage those specific situations in a healthy way.
Common factors that may trigger an alcohol craving include:
- Seeing someone else drinking alcohol
- Advertisements for alcohol
- Walking past a bar or club
- Feeling isolated and lonely
- Overconfidence in your ability to resist cravings
- Smelling alcohol
- Being around alcohol with the potential to purchase it
- Certain friends, colleagues or family members that you once drank with
- Reminiscing over past experiences of drinking alcohol
- Experiencing stress and difficult emotions
The simple act of routine can also be a common trigger. If you always pour a glass of wine for yourself when you get home from work, this automatic action could be enough to trigger a relapse.
In these situations it is recommended that you remind yourself of the reasons why you are in recovery – do you want to give your children a better and more stable home life, or are you planning to live a happier and healthier lifestyle?
Focus on your end goals and push through the craving. It may be uncomfortable, but it will eventually pass.
How long do alcohol cravings last?
It is expected that most people will likely experience alcohol cravings both during and after treatment, and these will usually come and go in waves that decrease in intensity over time.
Some people notice that these cravings disappear after a few months, while others will experience them for a number of years after treatment.
In particularly severe cases of addiction, a number of people may find that they continue to have alcohol cravings on and off for the rest of their lives.
Thankfully there is a wide range of techniques available to help you withstand alcohol cravings and resist temptation, even without the safety net of an ongoing treatment programme.
Which techniques can I use in order to control alcohol cravings?
Although cravings for alcohol can feel overwhelming and uncontrollable, there are ways to manage them and gain control at the moment.
If you have been triggered by a specific event, object, activity or person, try some of these simple techniques to calm your body and mind and help to resist temptation.
Some of these tips can be used in the short term while others are suited for the long-term management of alcohol cravings.
- Distract yourself: When you are in the midst of a sudden and intense craving for alcohol, it may be difficult to think about anything else. However, if you are able to distract yourself with an activity that requires a certain amount of concentration such as a crossword or a sudoku puzzle, it may be possible to push the craving to the back of your mind for the short amount of time required.
- Live a healthy lifestyle: Keeping your body and mind as healthy as possible with regular exercise, a healthy diet and plenty of sleep can help to mitigate cravings and allow you to manage them effectively when they strike. When our physical or mental health is depleted we are more susceptible to falling victim to cravings and unconscious routines that could potentially sabotage recovery, so ensuring that all your basic needs are met can help to control alcohol cravings in the long term.
- Avoid triggering situations and people: The more time that passes after treatment and the further along you are in your recovery journey, the easier it can be to become overconfident and believe that you are immune to triggers. It’s common for people recovering from alcohol addiction to spending time in bars and pubs with friends that they socialised with in the past, even though they are no longer drinking. However, this can put you at risk of cravings as being surrounded by alcohol and the people that you once drank with may make the temptation to drink feel irresistible.
- Manage your stress: Similarly to a healthy lifestyle, learning to manage your stress and emotions effectively can help you to tackle alcohol cravings and reduce your risk of becoming triggered. Stress is one of the most common triggers for alcohol cravings and is often the cause of relapse for people who are recovering from alcohol addiction, so learning how to cope with difficult emotions in a healthy way
- Be patient: Most cravings last for a maximum of 15-20 minutes, so it’s important to remember that this uncomfortable feeling will likely pass fairly quickly. This may help you to feel more in control of your actions, as you will only need to actively restrain yourself and resist the temptation for a relatively short amount of time.
Which medications can I take to reduce alcohol cravings?
As well as actively taking steps to avoid triggers and manage cravings, there are a number of medications that can be prescribed to people in recovery from an alcohol addiction that has been proven to physically and psychologically reduce cravings for alcohol in both the short and long term. 
Their effects vary from causing an unpleasant reaction when the individual consumes alcohol to blocking the pleasurable feelings that are often experienced during a drinking session.
Common medications to reduce alcohol cravings include:
- Acamprosate: Many people recovering from alcohol addiction are prescribed Acamprosate, which is thought to restore the chemical imbalance in the brain that is caused by the cessation of excessive alcohol consumption. As it does not actively stop people from drinking alcohol before they have gone through the recovery process, Acamprosate is prescribed to people once they have completed a treatment programme and can be taken for up to 12 months.
- Antabuse: This medication can make the consumption of alcohol seem less appealing by causing an immediate adverse reaction whenever the patient drinks, potentially reducing cravings over time. The individual may experience nausea, vomiting, a flushed face, headaches and heart palpitations, all extremely uncomfortable sensations that they will be unlikely to feel a desire to recreate. They may begin to associate these experiences with the act of drinking alcohol, and as a result, Antabuse can help to reduce cravings.
- Naltrexone: For many people, the ‘high’ that they experience after consuming alcohol is extremely addictive. As a result, they may become nostalgic for this sensation after a few months in recovery, and could potentially be tempted to drink alcohol again to recreate this experience. Naltrexone prevents this ‘high’ from occurring when alcohol is consumed, and as a result, the drinker gains no pleasure from the act of drinking. Over time this can reduce cravings as the individual can no longer experience the addictive thrill of alcohol.