Thoughts of Relapse
One of the scariest things about cravings is that they can appear out of nowhere. Things may be going well for the individual in recovery but the urge to drink or use drugs pops into their head. If an individual is having regular cravings it is not a good idea to just ignore it. This could be a sight that they have taken a wrong turn somewhere. It is also important to realize that just because the individual has cravings does not necessarily mean that they are going to relapse. Most people in recovery will need to at least occasionally deal with cravings – particularly in early recovery.
A craving can be defined as an intense desire for some particular thing. Those individuals who have been addicted to alcohol or drugs will experience cravings as a symptom of their condition. It is this intense desire to keep drinking or using that keeps them a prisoner. Even when people become sober they can still occasional have to deal with cravings.
Incentive Salience and Cravings in Recovery
Incentive salience offers a good explanation for why people continue to experience cravings even after they have become sober. This theory suggests that the forces that drive an addiction are hidden in the subconscious. The reason why people behave in an addicted manner is that their brain has developed an association between the addictive substance and reward. Even when people have become sober it can still take a long time for this subconscious connection between the two to fade. This is why the individual may continue to have cravings long after they have become sober. These urges to drink occur because of changes in brain functioning caused by substance abuse and so it does not always mean that the individual is currently doing anything wrong.
Cravings with Success and Failure
When life is not going well for people in recovery it can mean also having to deal with cravings. The usual way that the individual will have coped with problems in the past will have been to run to the bottle or the drug. When things go wrong in recovery they may feel this same urge. It is not only the bad times that can produce these cravings though. If things are going well for the individual they might also find that this produces thoughts of relapse. This is because in the past they will have associated celebrations and the good times with substance abuse. It can take people a bit of time before they become accustomed to dealing with the good times without any chemical assistance. Once people become comfortable in their sobriety this connection between substance abuse and the swings in life begins to fade.
Relapse Triggers and Cravings
Relapse triggers are notorious for causing cravings to occur. In Alcoholics Anonymous they single out the most serious relapse triggers with the acronym HALT; hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness. There are many other relapse triggers that may cause cravings to arise such as:
- Symptoms of depression
- Abusing any other mind altering substances. For example, some people who give up alcohol still think it is fine to smoke pot but this often leads to relapse.
- Periods of self-pity
- Feeling over confident and taking recovery for granted
- Feelings of frustration about progress in recovery *Unrealistically high expectations of recovery can lead to disappointment and cravings
- Unrealistically high expectations of other people can lead to disappointment and cravings
- Dishonest behavior or behaving like a dry drunk
Romancing the Drink or Drug
Memory can be a treacherous thing for people in recovery. When they hit rock bottom the pain will be enough to drive them to seek help for their addiction. The memory of how bad things were will give them the willingness to do what it takes to stay sober in early recovery. As time goes on the memory of how bad things were can fade. This is even more likely to happen if people have only stopped the substance abuse and have not made any attempts to build a life in recovery. The individual can begin to question if things were really that bad during their addiction. They begin to remember the times that alcohol or drugs seemed to be working for them. These memories can make the good times appear much happier than they actually were. This is called romancing the drink or drugand it can easily lead to cravings and relapse. There is a wonderful adage that sums up the situation well, if people forget their mistakes they are doomed to repeat them.
It is not unusual for people in recovery to occasionally have relapse dreams. This type of event does not mean that the individual is going to relapse, but some people do wake up with cravings afterwards. Dirking or drugging dreams can occur for any number of reasons and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual is doing anything wrong in their recovery. The individual may have been abusing substances for decades so it is hardly surprising that such material occasionally pops up in dreams. The only time to be really concerned is if these dreams are constant or they lead to cravings upon awakening.
The Need to Avoid Wet Places
It is usually recommended that recovering alcoholics avoid bars and other drinking establishments as much as possible. There is a saying that, if you go to a barber shop often enough you will eventually get a haircut. This is because being around alcohol and people who drink is likely to encourage cravings. Those who are in recovering can get a type of pleasure out of watching other people drink alcohol, and this type of behavior is not healthy because it can lead to a sense of being deprived. This same logic also applies to people who are recovering from a drug addiction. If such individuals were to spend time around their old drugging haunts it is likely to lead to thoughts of relapse.
How to Deal with Cravings in Recovery
If people find that thoughts of relapse have arisen there are things they can do to combat this including:
- It is important to realize that thoughts do not have to lead to actions.
- Cravings are often caused by a relapse trigger such as hunger or tiredness. Just eating something or getting a good sleep may be enough to rectify the situation.
- A technique like mindfulness meditation can allow people to see that cravings just arise and go away.
- If people are dealing with regular cravings in recovery it can be a sigh that they have gone off track. The way to handle this will be to assess the current situation and make appropriate changes.
- In early recovery it is best to be cautious when things are going particularly bad or particularly good. The highs and lows of life can be a trigger for cravings.
- Those who belong to a 12 Step group may find that it helps to share about their cravings at meetings or speak to their sponsor about it.
- If people have begun to take their recovery for granted then this can open the door to cravings. Sobriety needs to come first no matter what else is going on in the individual’s life.
- Romancing the drink is a slippery slope back to addiction. The individual needs to counter such thoughts with memories of what it really felt like to be an addict.
- Those individuals who began a recovery journal early in recovery can use this to refresh their memories of how bad things were.
- It is not a good idea to feel guilty about having cravings. Such guilt can actually work to bring the individual closer to relapse.
- If cravings are interfering with the individual’s life it may be worth discussing the situation with an addiction therapist.
- If the individual feels that they are about to relapse they need to take action to avoid it. This could include, speaking to a therapist, going to a recovery meeting, speaking to a trusted friend, or talking to a sponsor.
Mindfulness Meditation and Cravings
Mindfulness meditation can be a particularly good technique for dealing with cravings. It allows the individual to observe their internal landscape without getting too caught up in the action. The meditator begins to realize that thoughts appear and disappear in the mind all the time. It is possible to just observe them as if they are clouds in the sky. Mindfulness allows people to see that cravings are not a permanent fixture. Often just acknowledging them is enough to make them disappear. The meditator realizes that these cravings are no more who they are than an itch on the body. This means that they feel empowered and no longer afraid of such cravings.