Although rates of addiction are higher than they’ve ever been, the vast majority of the population still has a very poor understanding of how addiction works and, further, very little desire to understand addiction better.
Most people believe that when an addict is unable to remain sober after treatment, it’s due to the addict’s lack of conviction, discipline or self-control. When it comes to getting sober, the common perception is that you simply have to stop using alcohol or drugs. However, the development of an addiction entails lasting structural and functional changes to the brain. It’s not a disease from which an addict can simply choose to stop suffering. Even when an addict completes some form of treatment and gets sober, there are a number of other variables that could derail his or her recovery. In other words, the journey of recovery has only just begun.
One of the biggest obstacles to long-term recovery is the craving. After developing a substance abuse problem, cravings become an ever-present part of an individual’s life, which is why it’s so important to have a thorough understanding of what cravings are, how they work and how to overcome them.
What Exactly Is a Craving?
More often than not, we use the term “craving” in association with food. As an example, many of us have cravings for sweets or other types of food, but the concept of craving isn’t actually limited to food. We can crave the company of a close friend and new experiences, among numerous other things. By definition, a craving is an “intense, urgent or abnormal desire or longing.”1 The implication is that a craving is a sudden desire for something, experienced at an intensity far stronger than what a person might experience normally.
According to the psychology of eating, there are three main types of cravings: supportive cravings, dispersive cravings and associative cravings.2 Supportive cravings are actually good cravings. They occur as a way for the body to signal that a certain need isn’t been met. Meanwhile, dispersive cravings are desires that we have for things that deplete a person’s health or energy. Associative cravings exist somewhere in between. This is a craving for something because that thing has deep personal meaning and is often attached to a memory. Put another way, associative cravings are cue-based cravings that indicate an individual’s physiological desire to relive past experiences.
Cravings and Euphoric Recall
When you consider the different types of cravings that exist, it’s clear that the cravings addicts experience are associative, which is the form that’s associated with past experiences. After all, it’s not the consumption or intake of substances people crave but the effects they experience upon imbibing those substances. In other words, it’s not the act of imbibing that’s addictive. Rather, it’s the effects of the substances.
The intensity of alcohol and drug cravings — and the fact that addicts continue experiencing them far beyond the period of rehabilitation — is thought to be related to a concept called euphoric recall. Basically, euphoric recall refers to when individuals recount memories that bring up positive feelings and nostalgia.3 For instance, an addict who recalls being in active addiction focuses on how much he or she enjoyed the feelings of intoxication rather than any of the negative repercussions. Further, a number of experts agree that euphoric recall is putting many recovered addicts’ sobriety in jeopardy.
It happens like this: An individual will see or experience something that reminds him or her of a time during active addiction. The triggered memory is a euphoric recall, meaning that the memory is of the a positive experience being under the influence. As the memory makes the individual feel good and nostalgic, he or she begins to experience an intense desire to feel that way again. Since the individual knows he or she needs the substance to re-experience the feeling, this quickly becomes a craving for alcohol or drugs. According to researchers, the association between happy, positive feelings and these memories are so intense that it can put virtually any recovered addict at risk of relapse, including those who have been sober for an extended period of time.4
Coping with Alcohol and Drug Cravings
Cravings are one of the biggest obstacles between individuals in recovery and being able to remain abstinent indefinitely. On the one hand, cravings are known to become somewhat fewer and farther between as an individual accrues more and more time in recovery. However, someone in recovery is never fully immune to cravings, especially when they come in the form of euphoric recall.
Addiction corrupts a person’s ability to make rational, logical decisions, which compounds the danger that cravings present. While there’s no way to prevent them, individuals in recovery can cope with cravings by being more knowledgeable about them and having a number of coping strategies in place. In most cases, a craving for alcohol or drugs will pass in a matter of minutes, so with ample preparation, support and resources, anyone can conquer them.
Written by Dane O’Leary