Whether you’re quitting drugs or alcohol on your own or have rehab in the picture, there will always be a moment when you experience cravings. Most people experience cravings for over a year after they finally quit a substance, and longer if their addiction lasted for some time. It’s normal to do so. You will eventually experience strong cravings and you should know what to do when that happens.
If you’re planning to go to rehab or 12-step groups, you’ll also receive resources from there to help you deal with cravings. You should also ensure that you have a safety net set up in the form of a social circle. Calling people to talk about cravings and to ask for help can mean the difference between relapse and staying in recovery. But, these 8 things to tell yourself when you want to drink or use are also a good start.
Did you know that most cravings last 15-20 minutes at most? If you hold out, they will go away. Most of us think of cravings like hunger, where you imagine that they just keep building up until you reach a point of breaking. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, cravings function more like an itch. If you pay attention to it, it gets worse. If you scratch it, it gets worse. If you turn your attention to something else for 15 minutes, it’s likely gone. (unless, of course, you’re itchy because of a medical reason such as a skin condition.)
Are you craving drugs or alcohol? Tell yourself this is temporary. Remind yourself you only have to hold out for half an hour and then you’ll feel better and you’ll be proud of yourself. Keep yourself accountable when you do this. Do something with your hands, talk to someone, distract yourself. If you spend 15 minutes thinking about how badly you want that drink or that hit, the craving won’t likely go away.
Tip: Find podcasts, things you can do with your hands (like cleaning or playing guitar), or something at work. When cravings hit, engage with that activity for 15-30 minutes, or as long as you can get away with in that setting.
Whether you’re on your first, twentieth, or three-hundredth day of abstinence, you’ve put work into this. Sobering up is a long, difficult, and traumatic experience. Investing in your emotional and mental health while quitting is an act of courage and it is not easy. The further you’ve come, the worse and more dangerous relapse will be.
While many of us fall into the habit of glamorizing drug and alcohol use in our heads, you quit for a reason. Another drink won’t be just one drink and getting to feel that rush of calm as the booze hits your stomach. Another hit won’t be euphoria. It will be backsliding on hard work that you’ve put into building a new life for yourself. And that backsliding can be incredibly dangerous. People who quit drugs or alcohol lose tolerance and are at a high risk of overdose and death on relapse.
You can’t give up now. You don’t want to put in that work again. You can tell yourself that.
Chances are, you know why you quit using or drinking. You know what led you to take that last drink or that last hit. Think about that now. It’s easy to brush aside past motivation in the face of cravings. This is especially true if circumstances have changed, if life is stressful, or if you’re facing new struggles in your life. But, you can always find reasons why being clean and sober is better for you.
Consider writing down why you quit. You can also add in reasons why you should stay clean and sober. If you can’t easily come up with motivations, you might want to seek out motivational therapy, which can help you to actively set goals, wants, and needs for your life. Common reasons to abstain from drugs and alcohol include quality of life, family and children, career, health, control of your life, personal pride, religion or spirituality, or achieving goals. Hopefully you can come up with reasons that are about you as well as about the things and people you care about.
People are relying on you, even if that just means yourself. Your friends, family, partners, counselors, doctor, and peers are all relying on you to stay clean and sober. Everyone who knows you for you wants you to get healthy and to get your life back. If you have a drink now, you are letting them down. If you use, you are hurting your relationship with them.
While it’s important to distance yourself from the social stigma of drug use and alcoholism, people needing you isn’t about that. People need you to be the person they care about. They care about you and want you to be happy and healthy. You can’t do that if you relapse.
You don’t have to face cravings alone. Your friends and family will be there for you. If not, 12-Step groups like AA and Narcan can offer you support. If you’ve been to rehab, you have a network of peers, therapists, and counselors who are there for you. And, nearly every city has a crisis network you can reach out which offers support for people in recovery. You are not alone.
You can add to this by deliberately discussing your condition and your needs with the people you care about. If you tell the people you love that you will experience cravings and you might need someone to talk you through them, you’re much more likely to be able to actually call them to ask when you do need it.
If you use or drink now, you will regret it. Chances are, you don’t even want a substance in the first place. You want the chemical sensation that follows. Drugs and alcohol release hits of serotonin, GABA, and trigger the reward system through the opioid receptors. They make us feel relaxed, happy, euphoric, high, sleepy, powerful. Chances are, you can get that reaction from something else.
Many people easily move past the first stages of chemical addiction. Withdrawal symptoms are difficult but at least you have something to focus on, a reminder that you need to stay clean or sober. Afterwards, complacency sets in. You might be thinking that one more drink won’t kill you, that just once isn’t the end of the world, and you quit once, so you can use once and stay in control. These are all lies people tell themselves before relapsing. This effective is heavily documented in cigarette smokers, who usually relapse on day 7-14, well after physical withdrawal symptoms have ended.
What are your goals? Wants? Hopes? How many of them rely on you being sober, clean, and in control? What would you be giving up if you relapse now? Remind yourself of the places you want to go, of where you could take yourself with work, and what you want from life.
Whether that’s a career, a degree, a family, or moving and joining a monastery away from the stresses of modern life is completely up to you. What matters is that you remind yourself of your goals and how you can reach them.
From the moment you quit, you are actively working on your new life. You are putting time, effort, and love into yourself, into making the future a better place for yourself. That takes time. Drug and alcohol addiction ravage the body. It can take years to recover from the physical and mental side effects of either, even with treatment. Emotional blunting, chemical imbalances, stress, and poor relationships only make recovery harder. But, time will cure those ills. The more time you invest into your recovery, the better life will get. Give it that time. Give yourself that time.
Recovering from a substance use disorder is not easy. Most of us cannot do it alone. It’s important to ensure you have a social network in place to help when you need it. If you haven’t been to rehab, you should consider it. Even outpatient care can greatly improve your chances of staying clean and sober by giving you the mental tools to manage stress, manage cravings, and to deal with the underlying causes of your addiction.
No one becomes an addict on purpose, but you can choose to recover. Good luck and remember, it’s okay to ask for help.