Alcohol makes changes to the brain over time, including the slowing down of neural pathways and an overall shrinkage of the brain as a whole. But, before the brain is permanently affected, drinking heavily leads to alcohol dependence, which makes it far more difficult to stop drinking.
An alcohol dependence will mean the onset of withdrawal symptoms when attempting to go without alcohol for any significant amount of time, as well as an increased tolerance to alcohol. Alcohol dependence is also characterised by an intense desire to drink alcohol that can make it feel difficult, if not impossible, to avoid it. This is called a craving.
Why do cravings occur?
There are three models that can be used to explain why alcoholics crave alcohol when they are not drinking.
Reinforcement is an unconscious learning process which leads to repetition of any behaviour that results in a positive outcome. In this case, drinking lifts your mood and makes you feel more confident and less anxious. Every time you start drinking, the worries and emotions that you are struggling with are temporarily lifted, reinforcing the idea that alcohol will make you feel good. Thus, environmental triggers such as spending time with friends that you usually drink with, or being in a pub or bar, can trigger a craving.
Cognitive processing model
The cognitive processing model says that in those that drink every day, or very regularly, alcohol use has become so habitual that it requires more mental and physical effort not to drink than it would be to drink. Beyond the physical withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit, breaking the habit of drinking requires a complete change to your routine and lifestyle to avoid cravings.
Incentive sensitisation model
This model marks the subconscious link between alcohol and the feelings that it induces. Alcohol alters the levels of two neurotransmitters: dopamine and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which are responsible for feeling pleasure and neuron-to-neuron communication. With continued alcohol abuse, these levels become changed so that the presence of alcohol is required to bring these levels back up to normal. Put simply, the brain has been chemically altered to crave alcohol, which is why alcohol cravings can last for years, even after the person is sober.
Symptoms of alcohol craving
It is hard to put into words exactly what a craving feels like, other than the certainty that the discomfort you are in will recede once you have a drink. Broken down, symptoms include:
- Preoccupation with drinking
- Feeling uneasy
- Mood swings
- Difficulty sleeping
- An inability to think clearly
Triggers for alcohol cravings can be psychological or environmental. Psychological triggers are usually events which make you feel an excess of emotion, or offer a situation where it is culturally acceptable or even expected to drink. A death or relationship break up, feeling anxiety or physical pain, or even a happy event such as a birthday or work event could be triggers.
Environmental factors will be any place or thing that the drinker associates with alcohol and drinking. This might be a pub, seeing or being around friends and family that are drinking, or even smelling alcohol.
A craving for alcohol will also be deepened by a number of factors, which include:
- Cues. Entering a setting in which you have been drinking before. Your brain is prompted to expect alcohol when you enter these premises.
- Expectation. Seeing someone else drinking might prompt you to think about drinking, what they might be feeling and how easy it would be to join them.
- Perceived availability. If alcohol is readily available cravings are worse. Cravings are lessened in rehab, where you have no possible way to obtain any alcohol, but back out in the world they may ramp up again.
- Attention. The more time you spend thinking about drinking, or simply not distracted from the thought of drinking, the stronger cravings can become.
- Priming effect. One glass of champagne at a wedding, for example, can cause cravings to suddenly spike again. Once in recovery, you must stay completely sober, or risk being pulled into the addiction again.
- Stress. Severe stress causes issues with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive function, affecting thought processes such as concentration, planning, and judgment. This can make you lose focus on your recovery.
How to curb alcohol cravings
- You must commit to having an alcohol-free home, workplace and anywhere else that you spend a lot of time. Anyone that lives with you needs to understand how important it is that there is not alcohol readily available to you at any time.
- Try to avoid pubs and parties where drinking is the main activity. If you are not intending to drink then there is no need to be in a place where you are expected to do so.
- Establish alcohol-free activities to do with friends and family. You don’t want to lose your social life altogether, so start enjoying new hobbies that don’t revolve around drinking.
- Learn coping skills which can help you to curb cravings when you have them. These will be healthy ways of dealing with your cravings such as exercise, talking to friends or a sponsor, or even therapy to get to the root of your problems with alcohol.
How Cassiobury Court can help
Cassiobury Court offers a dedicated aftercare plan which will help you to deal with cravings and stay away from alcohol after you leave rehab. We understand how difficult it is to go back out into the world when you are still feel vulnerable from treatment, and want you to be armed with everything you could possibly need to make you feel safe. Your treatment programme will last for as long as you need to detox and lose the physical addiction, but this ongoing aftercare is one of the most important elements of a successful rehabilitation journey.
You’ll be given an extensive aftercare plan tailored to:
- The nature of your addiction
- The substance or behaviour you were addicted to
- Your age
- Your sex
- Your profession
- Your economic means
- Your family situation
- Your location
- Your social life
You will also have an aftercare support team to provide support around the clock, offering someone to talk to if you feel that your cravings are getting on top of you. The support team is made up of medical staff you may have already worked with here at Cassiobury Court, and volunteers who have successfully completed treatment here and know better than anyone what you are thinking and feeling in these early days.
We can be reached on 01923 369161 or you can text HELP to 83222