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What Are Cravings?

Everyone knows what a craving feels like. A craving can be as mild as “I think I would like some ice cream” or as severe as “I absolutely must have a drink right now or I will tear my hair out.” Cravings usually apply to something specific–otherwise it’s more like restlessness or agitation–and they can be the start of compulsive behavior, or the feeling that you have to do something.

Cravings are worst for addicts in withdrawal. If you feel sick, agitated, and achy and you know one particular thing will make it all stop, a craving can be overwhelming and distort your perception of the world. Your brain starts finding excuses for you to indulge. “Well, clearly the pain I’m feeling is a signal something is wrong; maybe I better have one drink just to be safe and then I can start tapering tomorrow.” This is obvious nonsense to anyone not in the grip of a craving.

Cravings usually have cues, perhaps even cues you don’t notice. Maybe you get home from work and grab a beer out of the fridge or maybe you start your car and light up a cigarette. Then when you do one thing and not follow it with the other, you suddenly feel weird, like something is missing.

You brain has basically gotten tired of putting energy into making the same decision every day. “Ok, I’m home from work, now what?” or “Ok, now I’ve started my car, now what?” It’s the same thing every day, so your brain bundles it into an action pattern and kicks it downstairs so it doesn’t have to deal with it every time.

For most behaviors, this is extremely helpful. If you’ve ever watched a toddler try to walk across the room then you have some sense of how difficult life would be without these fixed action patterns. When you are fighting addiction, through, fixed action patterns make life very difficult because the addictive behavior has been bundled with a series of actions and has partially passed beyond your conscious control. You can resist the behavior, but the craving pulls you.

You can’t eliminate cravings completely, especially during detox, but you can identify and avoid cues, or triggers. It’s much easier to avoid a trigger than it is to resist a craving. Even if you think you can tough it out, your mind will trick you. Avoid triggers and you will experience fewer cravings.

Sometimes you can’t avoid triggers. If your habit is come home from work and get a beer from the fridge or to start your car and light a cigarette, you obviously can’t avoid coming home from work or starting your car. In that case, you may have to substitute something else. It takes less willpower to change a behavior than to stop it entirely. When you get home from work, grab something else out of the fridge, preferably something healthy.

Be prepared for cravings to occur for no apparent reason. You can avoid cues and learn new behaviors, but sometimes your brain just has whims. Have a strategy ready. Call a friend, someone who can remind you how much effort you have put into beating your addiction.

The Serenity Recovery Center at Encino Medical Hospital is offering your loved ones a new way to begin their journey of recovery. Excellent clinical care, medical management, and the highest levels of comfort are our priority at Serenity. Call us today for information: 866.294.9401