One of the most difficult challenges in recovery is the lingering cravings for substances. Even after we have done all we can physically, mentally, and spiritually to recover from substance use, we can still encounter cravings at any point. Giving in to cravings can cause us to press the reset button on our recovery. But how can we cope with cravings?
Differentiating Between Triggers and Cravings
Triggers are environmental factors which can prompt our brains to answer with a craving. These triggers can be either external or internal. For example, an external trigger might be seeing a favorite bar, bumping into a friend that we used substances with, or seeing a bottle of pills. Examples of internal triggers include feeling overwhelming emotions, being depressed, or thinking about someone we have lost. All of these are triggers. They trigger our brains to create a craving.
Cravings create a set of physical responses, such as a quickened pulse, rapid breathing, tension or restlessness in our bodies, stomach churnings, and the fight or flight response. Emotional responses within a craving can include anxiety, obsessive or racing thoughts, distractedness, feelings of fear or dread, intense desire, as well as memories of past use. It is important to note that emotions this intense can also be cravings in disguise.
Facing Cravings Practically
Cravings are time-limited and also manageable. We can learn what to expect from our worst cravings as we learn to navigate them successfully. We can think about the worst craving we have had, and how intense it was as well as how long it lasted. Knowing that cravings have a beginning, middle, and end, we can prepare ourselves to manage them with as many tools as we can gain. The more tools we have at our disposal, the more likely we are to successfully cope with cravings.
Our first line of defense for overwhelming cravings and emotions is TIPP. This is an acronym for Temperature, Intense Exercise, Paced Breathing, and Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Utilizing these specific physical responses to a craving can help immediately reduce the emotional and physical impact of a craving. The idea is not necessarily that we will instantly feel great, or even better. The concept is to cope with the craving at hand and successfully navigate it.
This technique comes from Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), which is an evidence based method of relapse prevention that combines typical prevention techniques with the power of mindfulness. The concept behind urge surfing comes from the imagery we might associate with it – like riding a wave, we ride the urge. We know that cravings and emotions have a beginning, middle and end, similar to a wave in the ocean.
During a craving, we can simply notice our body sensations, and remove ourselves from the emotions surrounding it, practicing mindfulness to be present and non-judgmental. We are able to stay away from “feeding” the craving or emotion by riding it out and simply allowing it to come and go. We can feel the emotion that goes with this wave, we need to address whatever is going on. But by “surfing” the craving or emotion, we are not allowing ourselves to get pummeled by the wave. We simply ride, staying in our wise mind.
Direct and Indirect Coping Skills
There are two categories of coping with cravings: direct and indirect coping. Indirect coping involves ways to simply survive the craving without making anything worse. Direct coping allows us to address the underlying issue behind the craving. Both types of coping skills are important and useful, we need to learn when to use which skill. When we are experiencing intense emotions or cravings, and it feels more like a crisis, that is the time to use indirect coping skills. When we are uncomfortable but manageable, or when emotions or cravings are not very intense, that is when we should use direct coping skills.
Indirect coping skills include the aforementioned TIPP, as well as Self Soothe, Wise Mind ACCEPTS, STOP, and IMPROVE the moment. These are all acronyms for skills that are included in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT.) An example of direct coping skills is urge surfing. Other skills are based on identifying our emotions and addressing them. One way to do this is to identify the emotion, the action that our impulses are telling us to take, and then to do the opposite, or take the opposite action. All of these skills are invaluable and taught in our treatment to help us cope from now going forward.
How can we cope with cravings? We can learn the skills, do the work, and most importantly keep our commitments to ourselves and our recovery. As we grow and progress in our recovery, there are many things we can do, such as yoga and exercise, that will also help reduce our cravings.
Dealing with cravings can seem like a never-ending battle, like relentless waves trying to pound us or erode at our still fragile well-being. However, coping does get easier. We can fill our coping toolbox with tools and skills and wield them fiercely in the face of our intense emotions and cravings. As we continue to do so, we can become warriors, victorious in our recovery.
Learn to cope with cravings and maintain your recovery. Call AToN Center at (888) 535-1516 today. We will give you the tools you need to cope with your cravings.