The word “addict” springs from the Latin for, among other things, enslavement. Many of those addicted to drugs will agree that this is a fairly apt description of the hold an addictive substance has over the user. According to Harvard Health, this powerful hold is evidenced by intense cravings, the inability to stop or control use, and continuing the behavior in the face of negative consequences.
Today, addiction is classified as a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) and is recognized as a chronic disease. Without treatment, SUD may be fatal. Certain factors may increase the likelihood of developing an addiction, including past trauma, especially if it occurred in childhood, genetics, family history, depression or another mental health problem, social and cultural factors, and other influences. Once addiction takes hold, cravings make it difficult to break the cycle.
Drug Cravings and The Brain
Research has shown that drug use rewires the brain, ingraining addictive behavior with each use. When you experience something pleasurable, the reward center of the brain releases chemicals like dopamine, a neurotransmitter that reinforces the experience as desirable.
Addictive drugs also interact with the brain’s reward center but trigger the release of dopamine at much higher levels than happens naturally. The response is so intense, in fact, that the desire to repeat the experience is strongly embedded in the brain. As drug use continues, the brain adapts to the high levels of dopamine produced and begins to demand increasingly greater doses of the drug to deliver the desired pleasure response.
This adaptation of the brain is called tolerance. As drug use increases, tolerance continues to build, and addiction takes hold. Your body is now physically dependent on the influx of drugs, and if you stop taking them, you’ll likely experience withdrawal symptoms. Cravings then become intense, as your body seeks to avoid withdrawal.
Eventually, your body may become incapable of delivering any pleasure response, even with drug use. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “This is why a person who misuses drugs eventually feels flat, without motivation, lifeless and/or depressed, and is unable to enjoy things that were previously pleasurable.” At this point, you may be taking drugs just to feel “normal.”
Is Withdrawal from Drugs Dangerous?
Once your body adapts to regular drug use, withdrawal symptoms can be severe. Withdrawal, or detoxification, happens as your body begins ridding itself of toxins caused by drug use, causing a variety of physical and psychological symptoms. The severity of withdrawal symptoms varies depending on such variables as the substance used, how long it has been used, the frequency, typical dose, and other factors.
Withdrawal can be dangerous, even life-threatening, and should always be closely monitored by a health professional. Your doctor can prescribe medications to help manage symptoms, keeping you safe and more comfortable during the withdrawal process.
Although cravings can last for months or even years, they are most intense when you first become abstinent. Keep in mind that cravings will taper off, especially as you practice managing the triggers that cause them and institute lifestyle changes.
How are Cravings Triggered?
During treatment, you learn to identify and manage your own personal triggers that stimulate addictive behavior. You learn to make decisions every day on how best to avoid people, situations, and locations that have triggered drug use, or how to overcome temptation if you can’t avoid such triggers. You also learn how to better manage stress and other negative emotions that have contributed to past drug-seeking behavior.
Common triggers to cravings may include:
- Being around others you associate with drug use, especially when they are actively engaged in using
- A certain day, or time of day, you habitually used drugs
- An event or location you associate with drug use
- Extreme moods, either positive or negative, you associate with drug use
- Feeling depressed, anxious, shaky, or sluggish, or any emotion you had previously overcome with drug use
How to Deal With and Manage Cravings
Everyone wants to feel good. Unfortunately, brain changes caused by drug use disrupt the body’s natural pathways that cause feelings of pleasure. In most cases, with professional interventions, healing the brain is possible.
While medically supervised detox, psychotherapy, and, if appropriate, Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) are extremely effective therapies for substance use disorder, there are also steps you can take to reduce cravings and accelerate your healing process on your own.
Consider incorporating the following tips and strategies for managing cravings into your daily plan:
- Develop a detailed recovery plan. List all the reasons you decided to stop using drugs, all the ways your life is better without them, and where you will likely end up if you resume drug use. Review and add to your plan constantly.
- Regularly attend 12-step or other support group meetings. Associating with others who understand what you’re experiencing is invaluable. Find someone you respect and trust to serve as your sponsor or accountability buddy. Make sure you can call them at any time in case of a crisis.
- Practice mindfulness, meditation, or yoga. Studies show these holistic practices provide powerful support for those in recovery. Each discipline helps foster inner peace, reducing stress and other negative emotions that can trigger cravings. These practices also benefit the body by improving respiratory and cardiovascular health.
- Keep a “trigger” journal. Jot down any cravings you experience and what is happening around you when you notice them. The more you learn about what triggers cravings, the better you can anticipate and manage them.
- Pre-plan any upcoming situations that may trigger cravings. Plan your course of action, take a sober buddy with you, know who you’ll call in case of a crisis, and attend a support group meeting before, after or both. Take a copy of your recovery plan with you.
- Keep busy. Seek out new hobbies or activities, as well as friends, that are not related to drug use. Check out groups like Meetup.com that also offer sober groups.
- Surround yourself with positive people. Friends and family members are key during recovery, especially those who understand and support your recovery plan. Listen to or read inspirational books and presentations. Practice positive affirmations. Limit exposure to negative news, movies, and tv shows.
- Get creative. Studies support the benefit of creativity in recovery. Learn to paint, listen to or create music, write a story, dance, or find another way for positive expression.
- Commit to regular exercise. Exercise releases endorphins which make you feel good, and it raises self-esteem. It also improves circulation, strengthens the heart and muscles, and improves organ function.
- Plan healthy meals. Limit red meat, processed foods, sugar, and simple carbohydrates. Eat lots of whole grains, lean meats, vegetables, and small amounts of fruit. Drink lots of water. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
Having the courage to embrace recovery is your first huge step to a happier, healthier life. Incorporating the above practices into your daily life may not only reduce any cravings you may experience but may also accelerate your transition to long-term sobriety.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, we can help. BlueCrest Recovery Center takes a whole-person approach to treatment, considering not only a person’s physical needs but also their emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs.
If you’re in need of help, please contact us at (844) 416-7060 or info@BlueCrestRC.com.
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Thomaso Skorupski, D.O.