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The Best Way to Reduce Cravings
This advice sounds obvious, but are we taking it seriously?
Alcohol and cigarette cravings were two of the most powerful feelings I’ve ever experienced.
If you’re a fellow recovering addict, you probably already know how strong and irresistible these urges can feel. If you haven’t experienced them for yourself, just imagine trying to hold your breath indefinitely.
Addiction tricks our minds into believing that we truly need alcohol (or cigarettes, or whatever else). Going without a drink feels just as crazy as going without air. Resisting a craving feels like allowing ourselves to slowly suffocate.
In reality, sobriety is the best choice for our health, but in our heads, it feels like we’re killing ourselves by going without our substance of choice.
In a previous newsletter, I wrote about the strategies that helped me to resist cravings. [See: How To Resist Alcohol Cravings]. In today’s newsletter, I’m going to share another important strategy: How I reduced the number of cravings that I had in the first place.
A Two-Step Strategy
There are just two steps to my strategy for reducing cravings:
Identify what causes each craving
Avoid those triggers
I certainly didn’t invent this strategy, but it has served me incredibly well. To “avoid triggers” is a piece of advice so painfully obvious that I wouldn’t blame you for rolling your eyes. Yet, it’s also a piece of advice that we often fail to take as seriously as we should.
Even if we know we should avoid triggers, we don’t actually do it. Or, what’s worse, sometimes we don’t bother figuring out what’s triggering our cravings in the first place.
Although some cravings seem to truly arise out of nowhere, most can be traced to a clear trigger. Those triggers can be obvious, like walking past the liquor aisle in the grocery store, or subtler, like having a rough day at work.
The best way to start identifying these triggers is to reflect on them while you’re having a craving. As soon as you realize that you’re craving alcohol, ask yourself what might have caused you to start thinking about it.
There’s a recovery group called SMART that put together a helpful “toolbox” of free resources for addicts. One of those tools is their “Urge Log,” which is designed to help you track the sources of your cravings (or “urges” as they call them).
Although I’m not affiliated with SMART in any way—I don’t even go to their meetings—I think that these tools can be very helpful for any addict. You can check out the urge log on their website here.
Alternatively, you can simply keep a list of triggers in a notebook or on your phone. You don’t even have to write them down, as long as you’re making a point to identify them.
Once you start tracking your cravings, you’ll likely be surprised by some of the things that are triggering them. For example, I was getting cravings for beer just because I was stopping at a certain gas station. Once I identified that, it was easy enough to start going somewhere else for gas.
You’re never going to be able to identify every trigger or avoid them all, but you’ll spot enough to at least reduce your cravings by a little bit.
The really hard part of this strategy isn’t identifying the triggers, but actually avoiding those triggers after you’ve identified them.
In my previous example, of the gas station, it was easy for me to change my habit. But, what if your trigger is going to work? Or if eating dinner triggers a craving? Or seeing your best friend?
Sometimes, it takes a lot more effort to remove triggers from our lives.
I had experience with this last example when I quit smoking. I was trying to quit smoking for a couple of years but never had much success. Eventually, I realized that the most common reason I was going back to cigarettes was because I was hanging out with my best friend.
He was a smoker too, but he was supportive of my efforts to quit. He never smoked around me when I was trying to stop, and he wouldn’t give me a cigarette even when I begged for one.
However, it turned out that this was not enough. Just smelling the cigarettes on him, or even just seeing him, reminded me of smoking and created absurdly strong cravings.
Again and again, I’d go hang out with my friend and find myself buying a pack of cigarettes on the way home. There was simply no question that he was the number one trigger of my cravings and relapses.
It’s not as if he was doing anything wrong; He had been as supportive as he could. Unfortunately, that was not enough.
So, after completing step one of the strategy—identifying the trigger—I had to complete step two—avoiding it.
I stopped hanging out with my best friend altogether. I knew that I had to avoid him, at least temporarily, if I was ever going to quit cigarettes. It was extremely hard, but it worked. My cravings were reduced, and I was able to stick with not smoking.
What’s even better is that my success inspired him to quit, and we are now both about four years cigarette-free.
It’s easy to say that we’re going to avoid triggers, but it’s a lot harder to actually do it. To overcome my addictions—both drinking and smoking—I had to ask myself how far I was willing to go.
The little changes—going to a new grocery store, switching gas stations, avoiding bars—aren’t so bad, but sometimes we need to make big changes too. As I’ve written in previous newsletters, when I quit drinking, I switched to a lower-paying but less stressful job and moved to a state with a better support system.
In my experience, these big changes are worth it. As hard as they were, they were also a necessary step in escaping my addictions.
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