You’ve seen the film depictions; the grizzled old gentleman flexing his jaw and clenching his hands while he stares at a bottle of whiskey, trying not to drink it. Because our society depicts “craving” in this way, it can be easy to assume that we will never experience that level of craving. This is problematic, because stereotypes and tropes can blind us to the things happening in our own lives. When we better understand something like a craving for alcohol, we can better prepare ourselves for when it strikes.
Psychology Today defines a craving as:
an overwhelming emotional experience that takes over your body and produces a unique motivator of behavior - wanting and seeking a drug
But what we miss when we think about craving, is that they can also be incredibly subtle. Realizing that you’re feeling agitated and you don’t really know why, counting down until 5 p.m. so you can open a bottle of wine, getting distracted by your friend’s pint when you’re out to dinner. In many ways, these subtle cravings are just as challenging as the white-knuckled cravings depicted in the movies, because they get us thinking about using alcohol again.
Cravings happen for a number of different reasons, but they’re all rooted back in the neuroscience of addiction. We talked about how our brains learned to view alcohol as adaptive and helpful for survival, which leaves a substantial imprint on our behavior and memory. Even if your higher functioning, prefrontal cortex knows that alcohol is harmful to you, there are more primitive structures of your brain that are sending signals to your body that you need that substance for survival. Beating a craving involves your higher functioning beating out those primitive brain structures, which takes time, practice, and patience.
Under the Learning Model of Addiction, cravings can be viewed as something we can eventually unlearn. Just as we’ve taught our brains that alcohol is necessary for survival, we can then unlearn that and return to a state of being where we are not constantly experiencing cravings.
Over the next few days, we will detail some handy tools to beat cravings and identify triggers. The most important thing to know about cravings, however, is that every time we resist a craving, we build resilience for the next one. Every successful denial of alcohol makes the next craving just a little less intense.
Heshmat, S. (2015, January.) Why Cravings Occur. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201501/why-cravings-occur