If you find yourself having persistent thoughts about alcohol after quitting or cutting back, you are not alone. Many people experience this once they give up the booze, or decide to drink less. But what can you do if thoughts about drinking keep interrupting your day? How can you stop thinking about alcohol?
In truth, thinking about alcohol all of the time is an aspect of alcohol cravings, a very common phenomenon in recovery. And while these can be extremely challenging, there are things you can do about them. Below, we’ll discuss how persistent thoughts and cravings work, why they happen, and some strategies to overcome them and stay in control.
Why Am I Thinking About Alcohol All of the Time?
While we don’t yet fully understand the science of craving, a big part of it has to do with conditioning, and your brain’s reward system.
When most people drink alcohol, it triggers “feel-good” hormones in their brains, including serotonin, oxytocin, and particularly dopamine. The more this happens, the more your brain remembers this, and develops an association between feeling good, and drinking alcohol.
This is where external cues can come into play. For example, if you often drink when you get home from work, and you enjoy it, your brain will start to associate relaxing after work with alcohol. You may start to think about drinking when you come in the door, whether it was your plan to have a beer or not.
While there is much more to addiction than this, such “positive conditioning” is a big part of how people develop habits around substances.
Then, there is “negative conditioning.” This is a similar process, except that it involves drinking alcohol to cope with negative feelings. To continue with the above example, if you’ve had a stressful day, and you drink after work, the alcohol may relieve some of that stress temporarily. This can eventually lead to thoughts about alcohol when you feel stressed.
When you try to cut back or quit drinking, these thoughts and associations can become especially apparent. And once any withdrawal symptoms have passed (if you quit cold-turkey for example), such triggers and cues can become one of the major forces pressuring you to relapse. Not acting on these thoughts may even lead to feelings of severe stress and anxiety. This is a major part of what is known as “alcohol cravings.”
Why Can’t I Stop Thinking About Alcohol?
So, why can’t you just “change the channel,” so to speak, and start thinking about something else? Why is it so hard to stop thinking about alcohol?
It turns out that cravings for alcohol may have some similarities to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD sufferers experience obsessive thoughts that result in compulsive behaviors. Scientists believe the two phenomena may share some of the same brain circuitry. (Although it’s important to note that having thoughts about alcohol does not mean you have OCD.)
Scientists have developed scales to measure alcohol cravings, which include:
- The Penn Alcohol Craving Scale, which measures the frequency of thoughts about alcohol and the intensity of the urge to drink.
- The Obsessive-Compulsive Drinking Scale, which also measures the frequency of such thoughts, how distressing they are, and how well you are able to resist them.
People who relapse after quitting drinking tend to get higher scores on these questionnaires. This means they report more frequent thoughts about alcohol, and more intense urges to drink.
However, having cravings or persistent thoughts about alcohol does not mean you are doomed to start drinking again. There are things you can do to manage these thoughts and urges, and many people find they can eventually overcome them.
How to Stop Thinking About Alcohol
One of the most important first steps in overcoming thoughts about alcohol is learning to separate yourself from them. This is often known as “mindfulness.” Mindfulness practice comes in many forms, but what each of them have in common is that they train you to observe your thoughts without fully engaging with them or believing them.
Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily stop you from thinking about alcohol. But it can eventually make it easier to ride the cravings out, and not act on them. There are many ways to get started with mindfulness, but if you’re stuck at home during the pandemic, one of these meditation apps might help.
On top of learning to observe your thoughts, there are also ways to change and reduce your thoughts about alcohol.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach that can help you better understand your triggers and conditioning around alcohol. A therapist trained in CBT can help you learn to replace negative thoughts and behaviors with more helpful ones.
There are also medications that can help reduce alcohol cravings. Some, such as naltrexone, can block the reward response in your brain when you drink. This can gradually retrain you not to have any positive associations with alcohol. Others, such as acamprosate, can help rebalance other aspects of your brain chemistry, leading you to feel less need to drink.
Through a combination of these strategies, it’s possible to make a long-term change in your relationship with alcohol, and eventually stop thinking about it.
If you’d like to try some of the above strategies, but are unsure how to get started or access them, why not try an online program?
Ria Health offers access to anti-craving medication, weekly coaching meetings (including CBT strategies), expert medical support, and much more—all through a handy smartphone app. Best of all, you don’t need to identify as an alcoholic to join.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Craving Research: Implications for Treatment. Accessed January 18, 2021.
- Gilpin N W, Koob G F. Neurobiology of Alcohol Dependence. NIAAA Publications. Accessed January 18, 2021.
- Anton R F. Obsessive-compulsive aspects of craving: development of the Obsessive Compulsive Drinking Scale. Addiction. 2000 Aug; 95 Suppl 2: S211-7. Accessed January 18, 2021.
- Schippers G M. The Obsessive Compulsive Drinking Scale: Translation into Dutch and Possible Modifications. European Addiction Research. 1997 July; 3(3): 116-122. Accessed January 18, 2021.