by A. Tom Horvath Ph.D., ABPP
If you have had strong cravings, you may not need a description of one! Like hunger (which is what we call craving for food), craving is a complete (cognitive, emotional, and physical) experience. Your mind is distracted. You feel tense and/or frustrated. You get physically uncomfortable. Craving motivates us to engage with whatever we are craving. Craving is specific, although we may gain some relief by using a substitute. If you are craving red wine, beer would be a (poor) substitute! If you are just craving alcohol, beer or wine will do.
We only crave what we have had experience with. If you have never used heroin, you can’t crave it. You might have a “craving” to try it, but that is craving for a new experience, not for heroin itself. On the other hand, when we quit something, continued craving for it is completely normal. We don’t stop craving, all at once, something we used to have regularly. You can go on a new diet on Monday morning, but your hunger doesn’t adjust to your lower calorie intake for weeks!
There are three fundamental facts for coping with craving. The first fact is that craving is time-limited, in two senses. Every individual craving goes away, if you don’t act on it. When you act on cravings, they get stronger. Early in recovery it can be crucial to have the experience of “craving going away.” If feasible arrange to have this experience, perhaps by going to a tempting place, but doing so safely (e.g., have a friend or professional with you). You might “go” to a tempting place in imagination, which might be powerful enough to bring out a craving also. Or you might watch a particular movie. Be prepared to outlast the craving (having support may be critical). The first few times it might take even 1-2 hours.
However, you can always outlast cravings! How do we know that? Because the most fundamental craving there is, hunger, goes away if you just fast from food long enough, usually within the first day. If you have not fasted for one day yourself, ask someone who has (many people over 50 have fasted for medical tests).
Cravings will die away in general if you don’t act on them. That process may take several months for a major shift, and months to years for a complete elimination of craving. Occasionally an ex-smoker will say that mild craving still exists, but most tell you that it is gone after about a year. To summarize, individual cravings go away (in minutes to hours), and craving in general (for the particular substance or activity) goes away also (in months to years).
The second fundamental fact is that craving does not harm you. Even if you have many intense cravings, you will not be damaged. They are not pleasant, but you don’t need to be afraid of them.
The third fundamental fact is that craving cannot force you to do anything (despite what you might have heard to the contrary). Not sure about this idea? Consider the gun-to-the-head test. Imagine having your substance in hand, and craving it powerfully. Next to you is someone who will shoot you in the head if you use. Assuming you are not suicidal, would you use? Still not sure? Imagine the gun is pointed at the person you love the most. Would you sacrifice that person so you could use?
The reality is that we can cope with our cravings any time it is important enough for us to do so. The gun-to-the-head test is just an extreme situation which shows you how you would behave when it is “important enough.” If it important enough to overcome addiction, you can cope with craving!
About the Author:
A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, is a board certified clinical psychologist and president of Practical Recovery (alcohol treatment), an addiction treatment facility in La Jolla (San Diego), CA, focusing on collaborative care and self-empowerment.