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Understanding alcohol addiction and craving

By Tim Woodley

Cravings are different for everyone. For some, the clink of a glass against another at a restaurant is all it can take to trigger a strong mental recall that leads to the physical urge to drink. For others, something as innocent as the smell of a type of food remembered alongside drinking is enough to bring about the challenge of resisting the urge to drink again.

For those addicted to alcohol, be that physically or psychologically, resisting cravings is a life-long lesson of self-learning and understanding. It’s something lived alongside instead of removed entirely, and today we’re talking in a little more detail about the reality of alcohol cravings – and how they can be managed.

How do cravings happen?

Let’s begin with a little of the science of alcohol cravings. First and foremost, an encouraging statement: cravings can be conquered and, while never removed entirely, can be minimised to the point where you can live a fulfilling, fruitful and healthy life despite their occasional presence.

So, how do these cravings work in the brain? In short, alcohol is a drug. It disrupts the natural state of our bodies when we ingest it, and it strongly affects our ability to regulate and control our emotions, motor skills and decision making. Alcohol is somewhat unique. Although classified as a depressant, the amount of alcohol consumed determines the type of effect. Most people drink for the stimulant effect, such as a beer or glass of wine taken to “loosen up.” But if a person consumes more than the body can handle, they then experience alcohol’s depressant effect.

Neuroplasticity and the brain

Chronic consumption of alcohol is a different story entirely. Alcohol impacts the glutamate system in our brains which relate to our ability to learn, retain memories and change, which is defined as its plasticity. Plasticity is, in a sense, the ability of our brains to change physically in response to what we consume and how we think. Where alcohol is concerned, excessive consumption drastically impacts our glutamatergic neuroplasticity, essentially changing the very structure of our brain in a way that makes us more likely to crave alcohol.

The story begins to become clear: as an individual struggling with alcoholism and alcohol cravings consumes more, their brain physically responds by changing its structure in a way that makes this behaviour more common. Tolerance, which we cover in a little more detail on this page of our site, increases the threshold of how much we have to consume to get the high we crave so much.

Change is possible

The good news? Just as the brain can change so drastically towards this destructive cycle, so too can it change back towards its original state – although it may never fully be the same when recovering from full-blown alcoholism.

If you are struggling with alcoholism and alcohol cravings, it’s important to be aware that your habits and actions must change before your brain will. In time, your cravings will lessen as you remove alcohol from your life, but it won’t happen first; it takes strength of character to stand in the face of the full force of your cravings until you learn to avoid them and allow them to recede.

Understanding triggers

How do we do this, then? A chief lesson learned in any treatment programme is that of understanding your triggers; those unique things that bring about cravings for alcohol or other substances. As mentioned at the start of the article, this could be something as benign as a smell, or it could be a location you used to drink at or even a programme you used to watch drunk.

As you proceed through treatment, you’ll learn to understand your triggers. You may have a combination of environmental triggers and those relating to physical intake into your body, such as a fluctuation in your blood sugar which can lead your mind to mistake the shift as a craving. Part of recovery from alcoholism and alcohol dependency is the logging and analysis of the full range of craving triggers that exist within you; in time, you’ll learn to craft a life day by day that avoids and sidesteps these potentially harmful occurrences.

We’d like to talk

In closing, the Help Me Stop team wants to remind you that there is no one picture of problematic alcohol use and addiction. Problematic alcohol and drug use, while affecting the mind and body the same way, look different for every individual who suffers from them and triumphs against them. It’s important to understand this and not to judge yourself for how you or others perceive your challenges.

Also, with our new Digital Dayhab you don’t even need to come into the centre.

We’re right here to talk at no obligation if you simply want an understanding, non-judgemental ear. Call us if you need to on 0208 191 8920 or use our contact form to get in touch today.