Exploring a few changes in your relationship with alcohol?
Maybe you want to:
- cut the amount of alcohol you drink each week in half
- limit yourself to no more than two drinks per week
- give up alcohol completely, for a set period of time or permanently
But in spite of your goals and no matter how committed you are to changing your habits around drinking, avoiding alcohol might prove a little more difficult than you expected.
Once you make the decision to drink more mindfully or stop drinking entirely, you might find yourself experiencing some pretty powerful cravings — particularly in places or situations where you’d typically grab a beer, pour yourself a glass of wine, or take your shot of choice.
“Alcohol cravings can be very intense, especially in early recovery,” explains Ruby Mehta, licensed clinical social worker and director of clinical operations for digital recovery platform Tempest.
“The good news is, they only last for a short period of time. If you can distract yourself or sit through them, they’ll typically pass.”
Below, we’ll explore why cravings happen and offer a few tips to manage them, from in-the-moment techniques to long-term coping strategies.
Why cravings happen
Cravings won’t necessarily affect everyone who cuts back on alcohol. Still, they’re pretty common, especially if you drink regularly or your alcohol use falls into the “heavy drinking” category (binge drinking 5 or more days in the last month).
Cravings and alcohol use disorder
The new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes cravings as part of the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Experiencing alcohol cravings may not automatically mean you have an AUD. All the same, it could be worth talking to a mental health professional — more on that below.
As for what causes cravings? Experts have suggested a few different explanations.
Changes in brain chemistry
Over time, alcohol use begins to affect the neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, in your brain.
When not drinking, you might begin to notice feelings of anxiety or other emotional distress, along with strong cravings for alcohol.
Alcohol can affect your brain in other ways, too.
People often begin to use alcohol regularly because drinking leads to positive feelings or helps improve their mood:
- A drink after an unpleasant fight with your partner might help you feel calmer.
- A drink after a challenging day at work might help you relax.
- A drink at a party might help you talk to people more easily.
The pleasant euphoria you experience when drinking becomes a reward, one that reinforces your desire to drink in certain situations. You might eventually start craving that reward in new situations.
“Cravings often happen as an automatic response to a trigger, which could be a memory of something associated with alcohol or an emotion such as stress,” Mehta explains.
Most people who experience cravings notice a mix of internal and external triggers.
Internal triggerstypically involve memories, thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations that prompt the urge to drink.
- anxiety or stress
- anger or irritation
- physical pain or discomfort
External triggers refer to the environmental cues you link to alcohol, including places, times, people, and situations.
- visiting a restaurant or bar where you usually drink
- attending a party
- the end of your workday
- arguing with a parent
When a craving for alcohol strikes, a good first step involves acknowledging the craving, according to Mehta. She goes on to explain that while the craving might be intense, it will lessen and pass in a few minutes.
“A typical craving might last for 3 to 5 minutes,” notes Christina Hanks, senior recovery coach and care team manager at Tempest.
Reminding yourself that the craving will ease on its own can make it easier to get through those minutes without drinking. These strategies can help, too.
A positive distraction can help occupy your thoughts and energy, giving you something to focus on besides the urge to drink.
Hanks recommends creating a list of distractions you can turn to when a craving hits and keeping that list somewhere you can access it quickly — on your phone, the fridge, or in a journal, for example.
A few activities to consider:
- Put on some music and dance.
- Pick up a book and read a chapter.
- Go for a walk, by yourself or with a friend or pet.
- Watch something funny.
- Make a snack or cup of tea.
- Clean out a drawer.
- Try some mindful coloring.
- Spend some time on your favorite hobby.
Other helpful distractions might include meditation, calling a sober buddy, or taking a shower, Hank suggests.
Reach out to a friend
Checking in with another person in your life who’s trying to stop drinking can certainly help you ride out a craving with someone who understands.
But even when you don’t know anyone else trying to make a similar change, friends and loved ones can still offer emotional support.
Even 10 minutes catching up on recent news and sharing stories from your daily life can offer enough of a distraction that the craving passes, almost before you know it.
You might notice stressful or tense situations tend to fuel cravings more often than not.
If that’s the case for you, mindfulness exercises can help you anchor your awareness in the present moment and soothe yourself until the craving passes.
A few ideas to try:
- deep breathing or relaxation exercises
- grounding techniques
- physical activity, including yoga or stretches
- changing your environment
Rather than steeling yourself to face a craving with a sense of restriction, Hanks recommends approaching the craving with curiosity.
You might say to yourself, for example, “I wonder how moving through this craving without drinking would feel.”
It could also help to address your brain directly (even if you feel a little self-conscious). Hanks suggests something along the lines of, “I hear you want a drink, but we’re trying something new. Let’s see how it feels.”
Coping tips can absolutely offer short-term solutions when you’re trying to cut back on alcohol. That said, permanently changing your relationship with alcohol may require a more in-depth approach.
Understand your triggers
Taking time to explore the specific people, places, and situations that cue your urge to drink can make a big difference.
“When we encounter things that remind us of a drinking episode, we can experience intense cravings,” Mehta explains.
She notes that it can help to avoid your triggers as much as possible in early recovery, since triggers are often most intense when you first stop drinking.
Avoiding triggers might mean:
- moving your wine rack to the basement or giving it to a friend
- choosing restaurants that don’t serve alcohol
- hanging out with friends at times you don’t associate with drinking
- changing up your commute to avoid passing your favorite bar
- practicing good self-care to address needs for sleep, food, water, and companionship
Of course, addressing your triggers at the source can also go a long way toward helping you make lasting changes.
Maybe you experience your strongest cravings when you feel anxious or stressed or find yourself facing conflict with someone you care about.
Build your own personalized toolkit
Just as different things can trigger alcohol cravings from person to person, different strategies can help you manage them.
In other words, what works for a friend won’t always work for you. That’s why building your own recovery toolkit can make a difference in your ability to weather the most intense cravings.
You might even have two different toolkits:
- an actual physical box or bag that includes things like a comforting book, a favorite snack, a treasured possession, or a journal
- an “invisible” toolkit of things you can’t see or touch, like your favorite mindfulness or breathing exercises, words of self-compassion, and affirming mantras
“Long-term, we’re building a safety net around ourselves,” Hanks says.
“You are at the center of your recovery, and it can help to frame it as an act of creativity. You’re painting your own recovery journey, and stroke by stroke, you’re learning better ways to cope.”
Break the habit loop
If you’ve ever tried to break any habit, you probably know it’s often easier said than done.
Understanding the three distinct components of your habit loop can help you come up with more specific strategies to overcome cravings when they pop up.
- First, there’s the cue, or trigger — the first twinge of anxiety before a date, or an upsetting email from your boss.
- Then there’s the routine — having a glass or two of wine with your roommate when you both get home from work, or ordering a drink with dinner.
- And finally, the reward that reinforces the habit — a pleasant buzz, a better mood, or a drop in your stress levels.
Once you identify the cues, routines, and rewards that keep your habit loop on a repeat cycle, you can experiment with new routines that yield even more fulfilling rewards.
Connect with a therapist
Therapy with a trained mental health professional — particularly one who specializes in substance use and recovery — can be another great way to explore long-term changes in alcohol use.
A therapist can offer support with:
- unpacking specific needs you use alcohol to help fulfill
- exploring alternate methods of handling stress
- identifying any mental health symptoms or sleep concerns you try to manage with alcohol
Therapists can also teach new mindfulness strategies and coping techniques, along with cognitive behavioral techniques you can use to challenge and reframe negative thoughts or self-beliefs linked to alcohol cravings.
Get tips on finding the right therapist here.
Alcohol cravings can be difficult to manage alone, and there’s no shame in needing a little extra support.
Medication is one additional option for handling intense and persistent cravings:
- Naltrexone (Vivitrol, Revia) works by binding to your endorphin receptors and blocking alcohol’s effects. It can help lessen cravings, reduce the amount you drink, and make it easier to maintain sobriety once you stop drinking.
- Acamprosate (Campral) also helps reduce cravings, though some research suggests it may be slightly more effective for continuing sobriety after you’ve already stopped drinking. This medication appears to help restore alcohol-related imbalances in brain chemistry and ease withdrawal symptoms.
- Disulfram (Antabuse) doesn’t directly prevent cravings. Rather, it can make you feel less like drinking because it makes it difficult for your body to metabolize alcohol. If you drink when taking this medication, you’ll experience a number of unpleasant and unwanted effects, including nausea and vomiting, headache, sweatiness, and more. It’s not prescribed as often as it once was, but it’s still an option.
Interested in trying medication for alcohol cravings? A doctor or psychiatrist can offer more information and help you explore possible treatment plans.
Alcohol cravings are common, especially when you first try to change your drinking habits. It could take some time and effort to find a strategy that helps you navigate them effectively, but you do have plenty of options for support.
Therapy, medication, and recovery programs can all have benefit for reducing and preventing cravings. Combining medication with therapy and other interventions can prove even more helpful than medication alone.
At the end of the day, just remember you don’t have to run the course alone — connecting with a therapist or joining a recovery program can make all the difference.
Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.