Understanding Cravings and How it Helps Recovery

By now, many of us have come to realize that cravings are a part of everyday life. Whether we desire something material, like a new wallet or a new car, or we desire something physical (like money or drugs) desire is a constant. For the most part, we learn to manage our desires and cravings through sticking to the essentials of Recovery. Finding a balance between our wants and our needs, after all, is an integral part of being a functional adult. However, what happens when our wants become our needs? Addiction can do this. When we’re addicted, we feel as though we need the substance that we are addicted to, even though what we’re really feeling is want. We don’t need to be high or drunk, but the sensation of addiction is compelling and drives us towards patterns of behavior which can be risky and unhealthy. Understanding cravings and how they happen may help to avoid a relapse, or other unhealthy decisions.

When Cravings and Desire Become Unhealthy

Under healthy circumstances, desire can act as a motivational tool. It can motivate us to pursue our goals. For example, if we want a new car, we know that that will require money so we work hard in our jobs and save up until we can afford one. In this instance, desire motivates us to work harder and act responsibly about our finances. When desire is spontaneous, however, there is a greater chance that we will act impulsively. Sometimes, this can be harmless – we spontaneously feel the need to buy ice cream, so we do just that! Other times, however, this impulsive decision-making can lead to seriously unhealthy choices. It’s all about determining whether or not the short-term pleasure achieved by acting out on our immediate desires is worth compromising our long-term goals. If we buy ice-cream, we may compromise the diet we were on, for example. In other, more serious cases, if we decide to buy a drink, we may compromise our long-term goal of maintaining our health, well-being, and overall consciousness.

5 Key Elements to Understanding Cravings and Desires

Cravings can be broken down into 5 key elements. These factors often result in behaviors that we may later come to regret. By becoming aware of them, we increase our ability to avoid relapse and other unhealthy decisions.

1. Automatic Occurrences

When a craving begins, it feels automatic. The pleasure centers in our brain will evaluate the present incentives and our state of mind. For example, if we are hungry, we will be more likely to consume food even if it is unhealthy. However, when it comes to addiction, certain moods may act as triggers for use. If we’re feeling negatively, we may be more inclined to buy something that we believe will elevate our mood. Unfortunately this can mean relapse, which promises short-term pleasure, but comes with many risks including death.

2. Situational Cues

In addition to internal cues, we are also faced with external ones. Temptations, or cravings, are often triggered by certain situations. The smell of a nearby bar may trigger a desire to drink. The sight of someone else drinking may make a recovering alcoholic feel a powerful urge to drink. Passing an alley may trigger a memory of purchasing drugs and getting high. Even the most seemingly “everyday” circumstances can act as situational cues, so long as there is some sort of significance to the place or experience for us that we mentally tie back to our days of active addiction.

3. Elaboration

When cravings and desires begin to access our working memories, we begin to act consciously. In other words, we become aware of the fact that what we are experiencing is a craving for something we truly don’t need. However, the more elaborate our desires are, the more likely we will come up with justifications for why we should gratify them. We begin to tell ourselves that this will be our last drink before sobriety. “If I take just one hit of [insert drug of choice], I will feel a bit more relaxed.” Our thoughts might even argue that we deserve to treat ourselves every once-in-a-while, and that this use is definitely not a sign of addiction or an issue of self-control. Addiction is a disease of the mind. Don’t be fooled.

4. Attention Focus

We tend to pay more attention to things we desire, which allows for something called biased attention, or fixation. It has been said that addiction is a disease of obsession and compulsion. Cravings do not mix well with obsessive, compulsive people. Once we have a craving, we become more sensitive to the cues associated with gratifying that craving. For example, a craving for a drink may make us more likely to notice surrounding liquor stores, bars, or other people drinking. Our attention is drawn to our desire, which, in turn, increases the strength of that desire. The more attention we focus on our desire, the stronger our craving will be, and the greater the chance we will have of caving in.

5. Opportunity to Act

Our hunt for the reward to satisfy our cravings and/or desires is based on availability. When that reward is completely unavailable, we are forced to shift our attention elsewhere. One example of this may be a smoker on a 9-hour flight. During that flight, the smoker is aware that there is almost no way for them to safely give in to their vice. However, once the plane has landed, their craving for nicotine is likely going to magnify due to the fact that they can now smoke. Cravings can be overcome when it seems as though there is no opportunity to satisfy them. Once an opportunity arises, though, the cravings can come back with a vengeance depending on how strong they were to begin with.

Recovery Provides the Keys to Combat Cravings

Our ability to give into or resist temptation depends entirely on the strength of the temptation as well as our own strength. Stronger desires increase the likelihood that we will give in. But even then, it isn’t impossible to resist powerful urges. In fact, by becoming stronger than our desires, we gain control over them, and over ourselves. Becoming stronger means placing faith in a higher power for many. This is the basis of 12-Step Recovery. This proves challenging for some, but it is helped millions take back ownership of our their lives and bodies. Desires and cravings are an exercise in self-control and perseverance. Every day is a new opportunity to prove ourselves or learn from our mistakes. Everyday is an opportunity to grow. The important thing is to keep trying and not give up because we’ve stumbled or fallen. After all, the only truly successful way to combat addiction is to never stop fighting.

If you or a loved one is struggling with controlling cravings to use drugs or alcohol, call our 24-hour support line @ 800-411-9200 to speak to a recovery specialist.