If you’ve ever noticed yourself thinking about alcohol, or struggling to resist a drink in a social setting, you may have experienced alcohol cravings. For some, this may only happen once in a blue moon. But for many, alcohol cravings are a regular part of life. If you find yourself craving a glass of wine when you get home from work, you should know—alcohol cravings are a real thing.
Craving wine or beer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an alcoholic. But cravings for alcohol can interfere with your life, and impact your health. And if you are struggling with alcohol addiction, cravings and drinking urges can be one of the toughest challenges in staying sober long-term.
If you’ve ever wondered, “why do I crave alcohol,” read on to learn what alcohol cravings are, why people experience them, and how to stop them once and for all.
What Is an Alcohol Craving?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines alcohol cravings as “a strong desire or sense of compulsion” to drink. Cravings may also include intense, frequently occurring thoughts about alcohol.
What do alcohol cravings feel like? Cravings may not feel the same for every person, and the nature of cravings make them difficult to measure. However, cravings may be accompanied by physical signs such as sweating, or changes in heart rate and blood pressure.
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Why Do I Crave Alcohol?
Alcohol cravings are complex, but several factors feed into that strong urge to drink:
1. Brain Chemistry
Excessive alcohol use can rewire your brain to want or expect more alcohol, increase your stress response if you don’t get it, and even reduce your impulse control, making it harder to resist cravings. The more you drink, and the more often, the more your brain adapts to the presence of alcohol.
Your reward system is one of the main culprits in this process. The human brain is wired from birth to reward and reinforce behaviors that benefit us—including eating, sex, and socializing. Alcohol triggers this same system, causing our brains to consider drinking an important activity that we should repeat. A brain chemical called dopamine, in particular, helps turn drinking into an unconscious habit which is uncomfortable to resist.
But that’s not all: Alcohol also imitates some of the brain chemicals we depend on to regulate our mood. The more we drink, the less our body produces the neurotransmitters that help us stay relaxed or calm on our own, leading to strong feelings of anxiety when we don’t drink. Finally, excessive drinking impacts the prefrontal cortex, which helps us control our impulses. This makes cravings even harder to say no to(.
2. Routines, Habits, and Drinking Triggers
Internal and external drinking triggers also play a big role in strong cravings for alcohol. Emotions, objects, and places that we associate with drinking can produce a powerful urge, while some routines and habits can make drinking feel nearly automatic.
If you are accustomed to opening a bottle of wine in the evening, for example, it might feel jarring and uncomfortable to sit on the couch without a glass in your hand. The same is true if you’re used to hitting happy hour after work at your favorite bar. Simply leaving the office might bring up the urge to go have a beer.
Drinking triggers can be both internal and external. Common external triggers include the sight and smell of alcohol, and being in the company of others who drink. Internal triggers may include stress, sadness, anger, anxiety, or thoughts and emotions linked to trauma. If you associate alcohol with fun and celebration, even feelings of happiness might trigger alcohol and wine cravings.
3. Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome
If you’ve recently quit drinking, you may also be experiencing Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS). This is very common in alcohol recovery, and happens after the most severe symptoms of physical withdrawal have ended.
It can take some time for a person’s brain chemistry to readjust after giving up alcohol. Many people also experience strong emotions they may have repressed while they were drinking, and experience stress when re-adjusting to daily life and building new routines that are alcohol-free. With the right support system, PAWS often resolves itself. But until it does, you’ll likely experience especially strong cravings.
Other common symptoms of PAWS include anxiety, depression, irritability, difficulty with cognitive tasks, negative or self-defeating thoughts, insomnia, difficulty with relationships, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Up to 75 percent of people in alcohol recovery will experience PAWS to one degree or another.
How Long Do Alcohol Cravings Last?
Drinking urges can be extremely uncomfortable. If you’re experiencing an alcohol craving at this moment, it’s important to remember that the feeling will pass if you wait it out. However, since these urges tend to come and go for a while after people quit drinking, many also wonder when the larger issue will finally stop. When do alcohol cravings go away?
The answer is that your mind, body, and daily habits need time to adjust to life without alcohol. For some, strong cravings may last for months, while for others it may take years. Much of it comes down to an individual’s body chemistry, how much and how long they were drinking, and whether they have support that is a good match for their needs.
How to Stop Craving Alcohol
Alcohol cravings don’t represent a moral failing, or “lack of self-control” in the traditional sense. Drinking causes real changes in your brain chemistry, and can become an unconscious part of your daily life. So if alcohol cravings are having a big impact on your well-being, how can you stop craving alcohol?
It takes time, patience, and persistence to put a stop to cravings, and it often makes a big difference to have some form of support. Below are some key strategies for overcoming strong drinking urges when quitting or cutting back on alcohol. You can also read our full post on how to stop alcohol cravings.
Identify Your Triggers and Make a Plan
Pay attention to when you experience alcohol cravings. What are you seeing, hearing, doing, thinking, or feeling that could have triggered the craving? If it helps, make a list of things that trigger you to drink.
Once you know your triggers, identify some strategies that can help you avoid them, and write those down as well. These might include not driving past your favorite bar or wine shop, or taking a break from socializing with friends who drink often. For situations where a trigger is unavoidable, you might find a trusted friend you can call, or come up with an exit strategy ahead of time.
Research shows that mindfulness practices are an effective way to manage alcohol cravings. Mindfulness is about staying present in the current moment, and accepting it as it is. In terms of alcohol cravings, this means being aware of the physical sensations and emotions connected with the urge without judging them as bad, shameful, or discouraging.
Instead of feeling driven to react to the craving (by drinking alcohol), sit with the unpleasant sensations. Remind yourself that the feelings are only temporary. If you choose not to drink, the craving will go away on its own. Each time you let a craving pass without acting on it, it becomes easier to ride out future alcohol cravings.
Try Anti-Craving Medication
There are several prescription medications that are shown to reduce alcohol cravings, helping people reduce or quit drinking.
Naltrexone reduces the pleasurable effects of alcohol, which can help rewire the brain over time to stop craving alcohol. The Sinclair Method (TSM), which makes use of naltrexone, boasts a 78 percent long-term success rate, and allows people to continue drinking moderately if they wish.
For those who want to give up alcohol entirely, acamprosate can help prevent relapse by controlling cravings. Some medications approved for different conditions, such as baclofen, topiramate, and gabapentin, have also shown themself safe and effective at reducing cravings for some people.
Get Coaching Support
Learning to navigate drinking triggers in daily life can be difficult. A recovery coach can give you tools for dealing with strong alcohol cravings, help you set achievable goals, manage shame and stress, and track your progress accurately. Having an experienced person to talk to about your unique challenges can give you the confidence and the skills to keep moving forward when the going gets tough.
Learn more about Recovery Coaching with Ria Health
Whether you experience occasional drinking urges, or find yourself craving alcohol every day, Ria Health can help. We support everyone from social drinkers who would like more control, to people who drink heavily and daily. You don’t need to identify as an alcoholic or put your life on hold to get help with alcohol cravings.
Find out how online treatment may be able to help you quit or cut back, 100 percent from home.