It could be the sight of that favorite bar or a favorite memory, like that one time—spurred on by liquor and freed from inhibition—you approached the most perfect-looking human being you have ever seen.
Alcohol is tricky that way. When someone decides to stop drinking, external and internal triggers can drive them to drink. The external factors include people, places, things, and even a specific time of day. The internal triggers can be a passing thought, a memory that brought excitement, or negative emotions like stress or anger. Any of these are enough to compel someone to pick up the bottle again.
Relapse is a common occurrence with drugs and alcohol. About 40 percent to 60 percent of people who have been treated for addiction or alcoholism relapse within a year, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Professional addiction treatment not only improves your chances at avoiding relapse, but it can equip you with strategies to deal with the cravings that come with abstaining from alcohol.
Absent that, there are activities and strategies you can do instead of drinking that can help you avoid the lure of alcohol. But before we get to that, it’s important to know what alcohol cravings are.
What Are Alcohol Cravings, and Why Do They Occur?
Alcohol cravings are characterized by an intense desire to drink. These urges occur in people who actively drink, unleashing an unrelenting cycle of consumption and addiction. By continuing to drink in the midst of these cravings, people avoid the withdrawal symptoms that come when the drinking stops. That’s because they can maintain their blood-alcohol level at a certain point.
There are theories about why alcohol cravings occur. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) selected these models of craving to illustrate why people succumb to alcohol abuse and alcoholism:
Alcohol’s ability to produce an elevated mood or to help relieve an unpleasant mental state such as stress or anger is at the heart of the reinforcement model. Reinforcement is an unconscious learning process that leads to the repetition of a behavior (such as drinking) that produces a positive experience. Over time, environmental triggers, events, and emotions that are consistently associated with drinking alcohol can produce a similar response as powerfully as alcohol itself. These cues can include the sight of a bar,a liquor store, being in the company of friends who drink, or being exposed to alcohol itself.
Cognitive Processing Model
Alcohol use becomes habitual and requires little conscious effort or attention. That is the cognitive processing model. With cognitive processing, craving represents the effort involved in mobilizing conscious problem-solving skills needed to block the automatic drinking behavior. Such a situation may occur when a drinker finds that his favorite bar is unexpectedly closed. Similarly, following treatment, a person who is addicted to alcohol and motivated to remain abstinent might experience cravings while consciously attempting to avoid the cues and triggers in their environment.
Incentive Sensitization Model
Forces that drive an addiction are hidden in the subconscious. That notion epitomizes the incentive sensitization model. As a result, the underlying reason why people behave as addicts is that their brains have developed an association between alcohol and the feelings it produces. Even when people have undergone treatment and have become sober, it can still take time for this subconscious connection between the two to lose its power. This is why cravings can continue within a person long after they have become sober.
Though alcohol cravings can continue as an endless cycle of episodes, the good news is that they are short-lived. Participating in specific activities instead of drinking can help you conquer those cravings.
The 5 Things You Can Do Instead of Drinking
One of the biggest hurdles for anyone battling an alcohol addiction is being able to find activities that will not trigger cravings. Newly sober people may believe that life is less interesting without alcohol. They may carry the belief that sober activities are simply not as exciting as a drunken night out on the town or day drinking at a sporting event.
The truth is there are many exciting things one can do that does not involve alcohol. Instead of hitting the bottle, take up one of these five riveting endeavors:
Activity No. 1: Take Up an Exciting Hobby
Is there something you have wanted to do but just never had the time or motivation to pursue it? You can fulfill that long-held wish to tackle that hobby you’ve been curious about.
So, fire up those YouTube tutorials and learn photography, chess, or the guitar. Engaging in a hobby of interest can provide a level of fulfillment that far exceeds an alcohol-fueled outing with friends.
Activity No. 2: Do Something That Challenges You to Become a Better Person
Have you always been concerned about your weight or fitness level but never did anything about it? Is there a book you’ve always wanted to read but did not have the time or inclination to crack it open? Ending excessive alcohol use is an act of restoration for your brain and body. You can continue that progression by engaging in a physical activity that gets you into shape like joining a running group or taking up yoga. You can also expand your intellect by finally tackling that reading list you never got around to. The main goal of this activity is to engage in a process that invariably makes you a better version of yourself.
Activity No. 3: Do Something That Absolutely Terrifies You
You may have never been a great dancer, and that has always been your obstacle. One of the reasons you drank was because it was a social lubricant. When you were buzzed off alcohol, you thought you moved better on the dance floor. Here’s an idea: how about improving those awkward moves by enrolling in a dance class? If the prospect of public speaking terrifies you, then join a speech group in your area. The key here is to find something that actually scares you and do it. Actively taking on something you fear can generate an unparalleled sense of accomplishment. What’s more, by tackling a weakness, you engage in one of the highest acts of personal development. Beers with the boys don’t yield that kind of reward.
Activity No. 4: Open Yourself to the Natural Beauty of This World
Alcohol can divert your attention away from the beauty that surrounds you, natural and manmade. Capturing these charms doesn’t require a trip to an exotic destination. Beauty can lie in the landscapes of your local neighborhood. It can also be found in the variety of flowers that bloom at your local botanical garden. The art at your local gallery is another option. When you stop to appreciate beauty, you acknowledge the grace, eloquence, and purpose that exists in the natural world as intended. This principle also applies to humanity. We are every bit as precious and lovely as we are, without the taint of substances like drugs or alcohol. What’s more, seeking out beauty sets you on a path of worthwhile adventures.
Said Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India: “We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm, and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”
Activity No. 5: Write a Letter and Send a Letter to a Person You Treasure
A substance addiction steals your focus away from life’s important matters like family, friends. Alcohol addiction can drive you to sever or sabotage those bonds. That’s why in your sober life, nothing can be more healing than re-establishing or strengthening that connection with a spouse, friend, or family member you love. One of the most compelling ways you can demonstrate that appreciation is by sending them a handwritten letter. In it, you can detail the things about them you treasure, whether it be a character attribute, a recent accomplishment, or a memory you share. Love has the power to heal, and nothing is more restorative than freely giving it to someone you care about.
Things to Do Instead of Drinking at Night
Alcohol cravings can occur at any time throughout the day. But many people find themselves craving alcohol at night in particular. After work and at nighttime, in general, is the most common time for people to drink alcohol. You may have gone to happy hour after work, or maybe you got used to a nightcap before bed. Social drinking also tends to happen at night, so you may feel compulsions to drink at night.
Pay attention to when you feel cravings to drink the most. If you used to be happy after work, you may be craving alcohol when you get home. Replace that activity with a new one around that time. Try going to the gym after work to fill that time slot with physical activity. Plus, exercise has other benefits to mental health and your emotional state that can help you fight cravings.
If you’re craving alcohol at night, you may be missing the social connection you associated with alcohol use at bars, clubs, and other social settings. Taking up evening social activities may help you fulfill the social connection craving without alcohol. Try a book club, bowling, movie nights, and other ways to connect with friends.
More Practical Tips to Avoid Alcohol Cravings
Tips and tricks to help replace alcohol use can be helpful, but sometimes you need to dig a little deeper to overcome the cause of a craving. Here are some practical ways to deal with alcohol cravings:
Identify your triggers. Triggers refer to any stimulus that creates a negative behavioral or psychological change. Triggers can be an inborn emotion or thought, and they can also be a sight, sound, or smell that causes cravings. Identifying your triggers can help you create a better relapse prevention plan.
Stick to your relapse prevention plan. If you’ve gone through addiction treatment, you may have gone through cognitive behavioral therapy or a similar treatment where you created a relapse prevention plan. This may involve practical steps to use when responding to a trigger or craving. You may need to take a step back and examine the thoughts that have led to the cravings you’re experiencing. For instance, a common thought after a stressful experience is, “I deserve a drink,” as a reward for making it through a tough time. Examining these thoughts objectively may allow you to see that acting on the cravings is actually illogical and destructive.
Flee temptation. It’s normal to experience unavoidable situations that trigger cravings and compulsions to use. It’s great when you can identify situations you know will cause cravings that you can avoid, but many high-risk situations can occur as a part of your everyday life. Sometimes the best tactic is to remove yourself from an unforeseen, high-risk situation.
Leaving a party, taking a walk, or otherwise putting some distance between you and a trigger may be necessary. It can be difficult to overcome a craving when the source of it is nearby and available for long periods. If you can step away tactfully, supportive friends and family members should understand. Of course, if there is a common part of your life that you have to step away from frequently, you may need to find a new, more effective coping mechanism.
When Activities Are Not Enough
Because alcohol relapse rates are so high and few enter into addiction treatment, the cravings become insatiable. Many invariably heed the call and go back to drinking. If this sounds like you, then one of the most life-affirming things you can do for yourself is acknowledging your addiction and entering into a professional treatment program.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment
Professional addiction treatment begins with medical detoxification. The goal of detox is to rid your body of alcohol and other toxins to ease you through withdrawal as safely and comfortably as possible. You will receive around-the-clock care from our experienced medical staff. They will help you avoid dangerous complications and ensure that you do not succumb to relapse.
Because alcoholism is a disease of the brain, care that addresses the psychological causes of your addiction is critical as well. That’s why residential treatment is recommended. In this setting, you will receive comprehensive therapy and counseling while you stay at a rehabilitation facility. Experts say that 90 days in a residential program is the most effective treatment plan.
You will meet with clinicians and therapists who will help you create a plan tailored to your needs. The staff will consider every pressing need you may have, including psychological, medical, emotional, vocational, and financial requirements.
After a stint in residential treatment, you may want to consider long-term outpatient services such as a 12-step program, which can help you remain accountable and avoid relapse.
How Dangerous Is Alcohol?
Alcohol abuse that is left untreated can set off health complications that can consume your body, including your brain, heart, liver, and pancreas. Excessive drinking over a long period or during a single occasion can cause life-threatening health problems such as:
- Arrhythmia, also known as an irregular heartbeat
- High blood pressure
- Cardiomyopathy, the stretching, and thickening of the muscle making the heart not able to pump appropriately.
Excessive alcohol consumption can do a number on your liver, causing problems such as:
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Steatosis, or fatty liver
There are also links between alcoholism and these types of cancers: liver, colorectal, breast, esophageal, and head and neck cancers.
And if that weren’t enough, there are the treacherous cognitive impairments that alcohol can exact, many of which can result in legal, social, and professional consequences. The ripple effect of alcohol-fueled decisions often leads to hard, real-world consequences such as:
- Domestic disputes
- Car accidents
- Arrests and imprisonment
- Job loss
- Child endangerment
- Sexually transmitted infections
Alcohol Addiction Statistics
- 17.6 million people, or 1 in every 12 adults, struggles with alcohol abuse or dependence.
- In 2014, alcohol contributed to more than 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions like alcohol dependence, liver cirrhosis, cancers, and injuries, according to the World Health Organization.
- Excessive alcohol use is responsible for 2.5 million years of potential lost life annually, or an average of about 30 years of potential life for each death.
- 86.4 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime.