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How To Resist Alcohol Cravings
A personal guide to resisting urges and staying sober.
Cravings: A Quick Introduction
If you’ve ever quit an addiction—or even tried to quit one—then I don’t need to tell you how hard it can be to resist cravings. When I stopped drinking, my urges to go back to it were true compulsions. The best analogy that I’ve heard is that resisting a craving feels like attempting to hold your breath forever.
The first few (dozen) times that I tried to get sober, I ended up giving in to these cravings. However, I gradually built a “toolbox” of ways to resist them. In this essay, I’d like to share all of those tools with you.
I’ve divided these tools into three sections: Mentality, community, and distractions. Each covers a different approach to resisting cravings. These approaches complement each other and work best together.
I originally wanted to call this edition of the newsletter “The Complete Guide to Resisting Cravings,” but I realized that’s not exactly correct. It’s more like a personal guide to how I resisted them.
I’m now five-and-a-half years sober, so I can say with confidence that these tools worked for me. (They helped me to quit smoking too.) Some of them might work for you, some might not.
Ultimately, though, my hope is that everyone who reads this will find at least one tool that will help them to resist their cravings and stick with sobriety. Good luck!
Part 1: Mentality
One Day at a Time
I believe that developing a positive mindset is crucial for success in sobriety. If you’re sure that you will fail, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One of the main strategies that helped me to stay positive was to focus on making it through the current day. This comes from the old sobriety cliche: “One day at a time.”
When I got caught up thinking about staying sober for years and years, the task felt impossible. However, when I narrowed my thinking down to just one day, it suddenly felt far more manageable.
I used this way of thinking to get through many cravings, often on an even shorter scale. I’d tell myself “I’m just going to focus on getting through the next five minutes sober.” With this strategy, I managed to get through some of my worst cravings by just delaying my decisions for a few minutes at a time.
Hungry, Angry, Tired, Lonely
Another strategy that I learned to get through cravings was to ask myself what other emotions were causing me to want to drink. The popular acronym “H.A.L.T.” helps with this. It stands for hungry, angry, tired, and lonely—four of the most common causes of cravings.
Whenever I felt an urge to go back to drinking, I’d cycle through everything else that might be bothering me and ask whether there was an alternative fix. When was the last time I ate or drank? Is something upsetting me? Do I need some company?
“Tired” was an especially common trigger for me. Before getting sober, I normally drank from the early evening into the late night. After getting sober, this was the time of day that I experienced the most intense cravings. Often, I realized that instead of staying up late and torturing myself with thoughts of alcohol, I could simply go to bed.
Play the Tape
Out of all the mental and psychological tools that I’ve learned over the years, “playing the tape” has been the single most helpful.
This is essentially just a visualization technique. Whenever I experienced a craving, I tried to imagine what would happen if I gave in. The more detail, the better. I’d often think back to my previous failed attempts to get sober and picture myself making those same mistakes all over again.
This has been such an important technique for me that I devoted an entire recent edition of this newsletter to it. If you missed it, you can check out the archived version: The Visualization Technique That Defeated My Addiction.
Resist Internal Debate
I’ll wrap up this section with one tip about what not to do: Don’t get locked into debates with yourself. When I first considered quitting drinking, I was constantly going back and forth on whether I really wanted to stop or not. Some days, I was sure that I was an alcoholic and needed to quit immediately. Other days, I’d feel like I was blowing my drinking habit out of proportion and should just cut down a bit.
This internal debate only got worse each time that I tried to stop drinking. Whenever I got one or two days in, I’d begin telling myself that sobriety was a bad idea. I had all kinds of doubts: Was I really an addict? Was I too young to quit? Could I even stick with it if I tried?
The trouble is that whenever I got into these debates with myself, I’d always find a way to talk myself back into drinking. It didn’t matter how tenuous my reasoning was because I wasn’t really looking for the truth; I was just searching for an excuse to enable my addiction.
The only way to avoid talking myself into a relapse was to avoid these internal debates altogether. This meant getting out of my own head and learning to talk with other addicts. This brings me to the next part of this guide:
Part 2: Community
My life as an alcoholic was lonely. I spent night after night sitting on my couch and watching television. I had a few friends, but as the years went by I grew increasingly distant from them. By the time I actually stopped drinking, I hadn’t even spoken to my best friend in over half a year.
It wasn’t as if I had any big fights or falling outs. I just gradually separated myself from the rest of the world because I was spending so much time drinking.
One of the most surprisingly difficult parts of getting sober was learning to connect with others again. I had developed the habit of trying to do everything on my own, and initially, I tried to tackle sobriety on my own too. It didn’t work.
I’ve heard it said that “sobriety begins when we ask for help.” To get and stay sober, I needed to talk with other addicts. This helped with many aspects of sobriety, but for now, I want to focus on how it helps with cravings.
When I experienced a craving, I had my bag of mental tricks to work through it, but sometimes they just wouldn’t help. I’d end up still talking myself into a drink, going through mental loops trying to justify a relapse.
If I let myself stay in that internal debate, I know that eventually, I’d give in. The way to break the pattern was to externalize my thoughts—to speak with another addict.
Other addicts can lend a sympathetic ear and provide advice. However, on an even simpler level, externalizing my thoughts helped me to realize their absurdity. Excuses that felt incredibly compelling when they were in my head would suddenly sound absurd as soon as I said them aloud.
The great thing is that these days, there are more ways than ever to meet and talk with other addicts. There are the ever-popular AA meetings, but there are also plenty of alternative groups like the quickly-growing SMART Recovery.
There are also online meetings that take place over Zoom, 24/7 chat rooms, and forums. There are even sobriety communities developing in places like Instagram and TikTok.
I’ve used different methods of meeting and talking with addicts over the years. I found in-person meetings very helpful early on but later started using internet-based communities more. I’ve met incredibly caring and helpful people through both methods. If you’re not sure what would work best for you, my recommendation is to simply try them out.
Part 3: Distractions
Parts 1 and 2 of this essay have focused on what I think of as “big picture” solutions to cravings. These mental strategies and community-building practices are incredibly helpful in the long run, but sometimes I’ve also just needed a quick distraction to get me through a craving. Here are some of the “distractions” that I’ve found most helpful:
Switch Rooms—Moving to a new room in my home helps me break my thought patterns. It’s like when you walk into the kitchen and immediately forget why.
Go Outside—Even better than moving to a new room is leaving the house entirely. Fresh air and sunlight are both great ways to distract myself and feel better. Birdwatching was one of my favorite activities the year I got sober.
Drink Something (Non-Alcoholic)—Even a glass of water can help reduce cravings. Sugary drinks work even better. As a drinker, I always had a beer at hand, so now I try to always have a non-alcoholic drink. Even as I write this, I’ve got a seltzer sitting on the desk next to me.
Eat Something—Snacking helped me through the early days of sobriety. I know that some people criticize this as “replacing one addiction with another.” Frankly, though, I’d much rather eat too many chips than continue life as a drunk.
Read a Book—For whatever reason, reading books tended to decrease my cravings far more than similar habits like watching television or playing video games. To be honest, I’ve never understood why, but as I said at the outset, this is a guide based on my personal experiences, and in my experience, books help.
Exercise—Exercise is probably the single best distraction I’ve ever found. Not only does it stop cravings, but it also reduces their frequency throughout the day. Running is my exercise of choice because it also gets me out of the house.
Play an Instrument—I suck at playing instruments, but that’s really not the point. Picking up a ukulele or guitar is a great distraction and keep my hands busy.
Draw a Picture—I always told myself that I wanted to learn to draw, but it wasn’t until I got sober that I actually learned how. This is another great way to fight cravings because it keeps my hands busy and occupies my mind.
Create Your Own List
I tried out a lot of different hobbies during my first year sober. Some of them stuck. Most of them didn’t. However, simply trying new things was a great way to distract myself from cravings.
I think that one great practice is to create your own list of “distractions.” Whenever you feel a craving, you can simply work your way down the list. I hope that the distractions I shared above can provide a starting point, but I’m sure that there are plenty more that could be added based on your personal interests.
I’ve covered three different approaches that have helped me to resist cravings, and I sincerely hope that they will help you too. I have to admit that even with the best strategies in the world, cravings are still hard to resist. However, the goal isn’t to make it easy, it’s simply to make it through.
With time, my cravings grew weaker and less frequent. Eventually, they stopped showing up just about altogether. I hope the same will be true for you!
Lastly, I want to thank everyone for reading! This edition of the newsletter is public, so please feel free to share it with anyone that you think it might help.
I launched this newsletter about three months ago, and I’m really grateful to everyone who has checked it out. A special thank you to everyone who has upgraded to a paid subscription! Your support is what allows me to keep this newsletter going, and I truly appreciate it!