How to Cope with Cravings

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

As an addiction counselor, I’ve worked with many clients who struggle with cravings during their recovery journey. Cravings are intense urges to use substances or engage in addictive behaviors that can be triggered by environmental cues, emotional stress, and physical discomfort. These cravings can be overwhelming and make it challenging to stay on the path of recovery.

Cravings are an inevitable part of addiction recovery. They are intense urges or desires to use drugs or engage in addictive behaviors, and they can be triggered by a wide range of factors, including stress, emotions, and social situations. Coping with cravings is an essential skill for anyone in addiction recovery.

So how to you cope with a craving?

Helpful strategies include identifying and managing triggers, challenging unhelpful thoughts, practicing acceptance, using your values as a compass, committing to meaningful actions, and developing a support system.

By delving into each of these strategies, I hope to provide a comprehensive, yet practical, summary of the various areas to consider when coping with cravings.

Identify and Manage Triggers

Identifying and managing triggers is an essential coping strategy. This involves recognizing the people, places, and situations that can trigger cravings and finding ways to avoid or minimize your exposure to them. For example, if you know that social situations with heavy drinking may trigger cravings, you may choose to avoid those events or bring a sober friend with you for support.

Coping with cravings by avoiding triggers can be compared to navigating a minefield. Just as a soldier must navigate a minefield to reach their destination safely, we must navigate our environment to manage the triggers that can set off cravings and undermine our recovery journey.

In addiction recovery, triggers are the people, places, and things that can remind us of our past substance use and trigger cravings. For example, if you associate drinking with a particular bar or restaurant, visiting that place could trigger a craving for alcohol. Similarly, if you associate drug use with a particular group of friends, spending time with those friends could trigger a craving for drugs.

To manage triggers, it’s important to identify them and develop a plan for how to navigate them safely. This might involve avoiding certain places, people, or situations that you associate with substance use, or developing strategies to manage your cravings when you encounter triggers. For example, you might decide to skip social events where alcohol is served, or to develop a list of alternative activities to do when you’re feeling triggered.

Just as a soldier must navigate a minefield safely by being aware of their surroundings and taking precautions, we must navigate our environment carefully to manage triggers. This might involve being mindful of your surroundings, such as noticing the signs and smells of a particular place, and being aware of your own emotional and physical responses. It might also involve developing healthy coping strategies, such as deep breathing, meditation, or physical exercise, to manage your cravings when you encounter triggers.

Managing triggers is an ongoing process that requires consistent effort and attention, especially in early recovery. Early on, it may be necessary to avoid as many triggers as possible, even if it means distancing yourself from certain people in your life or missing important events. In later recovery, some individuals can begin to expose themselves to certain triggers they avoided in early recovery.

When working with clients, I assess where each induvial is at in their own relationship to addictive substances or behaviors and develop a plan that works for their unique circumstances.

Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts

Negative thoughts and beliefs can be a significant trigger for cravings. It’s essential to challenge these thoughts and beliefs and replace them with more realistic ones. For example, if you find yourself thinking, “I can’t handle this stress without using drugs,” you may challenge that thought by reminding yourself of times when you have successfully managed stress without drugs or alcohol.

Managing unhelpful thoughts can be likened to a courtroom where our negative thoughts are put on trial. Just as a lawyer must present evidence to challenge the prosecution’s case, we must present evidence to challenge our negative thoughts and reduce the intensity of cravings. By questioning our negative thoughts and examining the evidence that supports them, we can create a more balanced and accurate perspective that supports our recovery journey.

When you’re in recovery from addiction, cravings can often be accompanied by negative thoughts and self-talk. For example, you might tell yourself that you can’t resist the craving, that you’re weak or flawed, or that you’ll never be able to overcome your addiction. These negative thoughts can fuel the intensity of cravings and undermine your confidence and motivation.

To challenge negative thoughts, it’s important to examine the evidence that supports them. Just as a lawyer must present evidence to support their case, ask yourself what evidence you have that supports this thought. Is it really true, or is it just a perception or assumption? By challenging negative thoughts and examining the evidence that supports them, we can create a more balanced and accurate perspective that supports our recovery journey.

It can also be helpful to use a technique called cognitive restructuring. This involves identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive and accurate ones. For example, instead of telling yourself that you can’t resist the craving, you might say, “I have resisted cravings before, and I can do it again.” Instead of telling yourself that you’re weak or flawed, you might say, “I am a strong and resilient person who is capable of overcoming challenges.” By replacing negative thoughts with more positive and accurate ones, you can reduce the intensity of cravings and build your confidence and motivation.

Just like a courtroom, challenging negative thoughts is an ongoing process that requires consistent effort and attention. It’s important to practice this technique regularly, both when you’re experiencing a craving and in your daily life. You might find it helpful to keep a journal of your negative thoughts and the evidence that supports them, and to regularly review and challenge them. You might also find it helpful to seek the support of a therapist or counselor who can help you identify and challenge negative thoughts more effectively.

Practice Acceptance

Acceptance is the practice of acknowledging and accepting your thoughts, feelings, and experiences without judgment. In addiction recovery, acceptance means acknowledging the presence of cravings without trying to fight them or give in to them. Acceptance is not the same as resignation, nor does it mean that you have to like or approve of what is happening. It is simply a way of being present with your experiences and letting go of the struggle to control them.

Here are some ways you can use acceptance to cope with cravings:

Label the craving
The first step to overcoming cravings through acceptance is to label the craving. When you experience a craving, acknowledge it and give it a name. For example, you might say to yourself, “This is a craving for drugs,” or “I’m experiencing an urge to drink.” Some people like to give it a name or imagine it as a particular character. Labeling the craving can help you recognize it for what it is and separate it from your thoughts and emotions.

Accept the presence of the craving
Once you’ve labeled the craving, the next step is to accept its presence. Rather than fighting or trying to suppress the craving, allow it to be there without judgment. You might say to yourself, “It’s okay to feel this way,” or “This is a normal part of the recovery process.” Remember that cravings are temporary and will eventually pass.

Observe the craving
The third step in overcoming cravings through acceptance is to observe the craving. Rather than getting caught up in the urge to use substances or engage in addictive behaviors, observe the craving as if it were an outsider looking in. Notice the physical sensations in your body, such as the tightness in your chest or the restlessness in your limbs. Observe your thoughts and emotions without judgment.

Ride the Wave

When it comes to addiction recovery, cravings are a common experience that can feel overwhelming and difficult to manage. However, by reframing cravings as waves in the ocean, we can gain a new perspective on how to navigate these challenging experiences.

Just as waves in the ocean can be strong and powerful, cravings can also feel intense and difficult to control. When we experience a craving, it can feel like a wave crashing against us, threatening to pull us under. But just as waves come and go, so too can cravings build up and then dissipate over time. By acknowledging this natural ebb and flow, we can learn to ride the waves of cravings and stay on course towards our goals.

Like a skilled surfer who learns to ride the waves, we can learn to navigate our cravings and stay on course towards our goals. The first step in managing cravings is to acknowledge their presence. Just as a surfer must watch the waves to anticipate their movements, we must be aware of our cravings and how they affect us. By labeling the craving and recognizing its intensity, we can gain a sense of control over the situation.

The next step is to accept the presence of the craving. Just as a surfer must accept the presence of the wave, we must accept the presence of the craving without judging ourselves. It’s important to remember that cravings are a natural part of the recovery process and that they do not define us as individuals.

Observing the craving without judgment is the third step in managing cravings. This can be challenging, as our instinct is often to resist or fight against the craving. But just as a surfer observes the wave without resistance, we can observe the craving without judgment. We can examine our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them, allowing the craving to pass through us without overpowering us.

Letting go of the struggle is the fourth step in managing cravings. Just as a surfer must let go of the struggle to control the wave, we must let go of the struggle to control our cravings. Instead, we can focus on what we can control, such as our thoughts and behaviors. By accepting that we cannot control the craving, we can free ourselves from the struggle and find greater peace and acceptance.

Practicing mindfulness is the fifth step in managing cravings. Mindfulness involves being fully present in the moment and non-judgmentally observing our thoughts and emotions. By focusing our attention on the present moment, we can let go of worries about the past or future and be more accepting of our experiences. Mindfulness can also help us develop a greater awareness of our thoughts and emotions, which can help us recognize and accept cravings when they arise.

Use Your Values as a Compass

Just as a ship needs a compass to stay on course, we need our values to guide us through the turbulent waters of addiction recovery. Our values serve as a compass that helps us stay focused on what truly matters to us and what we want to achieve in life. When we are faced with cravings, it can be easy to lose sight of our values and give in to the temptation. However, by recalling our values, we can stay true to ourselves and our recovery goals.

The first step in using your values to cope with cravings is to identify them. What are the things that are most important to you in life? What motivates you and gives you a sense of purpose and fulfillment? Perhaps you value your relationships with family and friends, your career or education, or your physical and mental health. By identifying your values, you can begin to use them as a guide in your recovery journey.

The next step is to use your values to set clear and specific goals for yourself. Just as a ship needs a destination to navigate towards, you need clear and specific recovery goals to guide you through the ups and downs of addiction recovery. By setting goals that are aligned with your values, you can stay motivated and focused even when you are faced with strong cravings.

When you are experiencing a craving, it can be helpful to recall your values and remind yourself of why you are committed to your recovery journey. This can be a powerful motivator that helps you resist the temptation to give in to your addiction. For example, if your family is an important value for you, you might recall the love and support they have given you and how much they would be hurt if you were to relapse.

Another way to use your values to cope with cravings is to engage in activities that are aligned with your values. For example, if your value is physical health, you might go for a run or do some yoga to distract yourself from the craving and reinforce your commitment to your health. If your value is education, you might spend some time studying or reading a book that inspires you.

It’s important to remember that using your values to cope with cravings is not a one-time solution, but rather an ongoing process. Just as a ship needs a compass to guide it through changing weather conditions, you need to continually revisit and reaffirm your values to stay on track in your recovery journey. With practice and persistence, you can use your values to navigate the challenging waters of addiction recovery and emerge stronger and more resilient on the other side.

Commit to Meaningful Actions

Coping with cravings can also be compared to a garden that requires regular tending. Just as a garden needs consistent attention and care to thrive, we need to engage in meaningful actions to nourish our well-being and manage cravings effectively. By cultivating a rich and fulfilling life, we can strengthen our resilience and create a solid foundation for recovery. When we engage in meaningful actions, we can stay focused on our values and goals and develop healthy habits that support our well-being.

When in recovery from addiction, cravings can often feel overwhelming and all-consuming. However, by engaging in meaningful actions, you can create a sense of purpose and meaning that helps to reduce the intensity of cravings. Meaningful actions are those that give us a sense of fulfillment and purpose, and that align with our values and goals. These can be anything from spending time with loved ones, pursuing a hobby or passion, volunteering in your community, or focusing on your career or education.

Just as a garden requires consistent effort to thrive, engaging in meaningful actions requires ongoing commitment and attention. The first step is to identify the actions that are most meaningful to you. What brings you joy and fulfillment? What activities align with your values and goals? By identifying the actions that are most meaningful to you, you can begin to incorporate them into your daily routine.

When you’re experiencing a craving, it can be helpful to turn to meaningful actions as a way to shift your focus. For example, if spending time with loved ones is a meaningful action for you, you might call a friend or family member to talk or spend time with them in person. If pursuing a hobby or passion is meaningful to you, you might engage in that activity to redirect your attention away from the craving.

Engaging in meaningful actions is not just a distraction from cravings, but a way to build a fulfilling and satisfying life. By consistently engaging in meaningful actions, you can develop healthy habits that support your well-being and reduce the likelihood of relapse. This can include developing a regular exercise routine, practicing mindfulness or meditation, or taking steps to further your education or career.

It’s important to remember that engaging in meaningful actions is not a one-time solution to cravings, but an ongoing process. Just as a garden requires regular watering and pruning, engaging in meaningful actions requires consistent attention and care. You might find it helpful to create a daily or weekly routine that includes the actions that are most meaningful to you, and to regularly evaluate your progress and adjust your routine as needed.

Develop a Support System

Developing a support system is a crucial aspect of addiction recovery. Having a network of family, friends, and peers who understand what you are going through can help you feel less alone and provide you with a sense of accountability.

Support groups, such as 12-step programs, can also be a valuable resource for individuals in addiction recovery. Attending support group meetings can help you connect with others who are going through similar experiences and provide you with a safe space to share your struggles. These groups may include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Gamblers Anonymous (GA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), and many others.

Attending these groups can also assist in building a sober network. Surrounding oneself with individuals who are also in recovery and living a sober lifestyle can be a powerful source of support. Building a sober network can involve attending sober events, meeting people through support groups, or connecting with others through social media platforms.

Sharing your recovery with supportive family and friends can also be helpful. Sharing experiences with loved ones can increase accountability and provide a sense of connection and support. It can also be useful to manage triggers. For example, if you are trying to stop drinking, it is helpful to inform friends who would normally offer you a drink. It also allows others to be mindful of their consumption around you, especially in early recovery.

Professional supports can also help you develop a more comprehensive plan for managing cravings. An addiction counselor can help individuals develop personalized coping strategies, explore underlying issues, and develop the skills needed to manage cravings effectively. Healthcare providers can also be a useful asset since they can recommend medications such as Naltrexone to reduce cravings.

Conclusion

In this article we have explored various strategies for coping with cravings in addiction recovery.

We started by discussing the importance of managing triggers, which can be compared to navigating a minefield. This metaphor suggests that we can identify and manage triggers, just as a soldier navigates a minefield, and develop healthy coping strategies to manage cravings when we encounter them.

Challenging unhelpful thoughts can also help us to cope with cravings. We used the metaphor of a trial lawyer since we need to consider the evidence for and against our unhelpful thoughts.

We looked at how acceptance can help us to overcome cravings by allowing us to experience them without judgment or resistance. We then discussed the metaphor of waves, which highlights the importance of riding out cravings and allowing them to pass naturally.

We also explored how recalling our values can help us to cope with cravings by providing a sense of purpose and meaning. We used the metaphor of values as a compass, proving direction as we sail the stormy seas of recovery.

Engaging in meaningful actions can also help us to cope with cravings by providing a sense of purpose and fulfillment. This metaphor suggests that we can plant the seeds of new habits and behaviors, just as a gardener plants seeds in fertile soil, and nurture them with care and attention.

Lastly, we discussed the importance of developing a strong support system which may include supportive persons in ours lives, peers in recovery, or professional supports.

By utilizing these various strategies, individuals in addiction recovery can better cope with cravings and create a solid foundation for lasting recovery.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.


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2 Comments

  1. C.F.

    This was an immensely helpful article. The advice is practical & sensible, & gives hope, support, & encouragement. My favorite parts of the article include learning to challenge negative thoughts, practicing acceptance, & engaging in meaningful activities which are in line with my values. Earlier today — before reading the article — I was crying & feeling sorry for myself. After reading the article, I said to myself, “Well, what did you learn today? You learned to stop moaning & weeping like a helpless baby. You love to write & you enjoy helping people, so pull your head out of your butt, log into one of those homework-hotline websites, & help some students with their assignments.” Now I feel more useful, more productive, more capable, less depressed, & very inspired. Thank you for this wonderful article.

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      Thank you for this comment! I’m glad to hear this has been useful for you today, allowing you to help others!

      Reply

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