If you have been clean and sober for a considerable period of time, you fully realize there are two sides to drug addiction. On one side, there is the physical aspects of addiction that is addressed during the medical detoxification portion of drug treatment. While those early in recovery regain their physical health and mental clarity as a result of the detox process, the psychological remnants of addiction often linger for months and even years after drug use ceases.
The first few months of recovery are seen as the most crucial, and during that time there are many obstacle that can trip you up and cause you to backslide back into active drug use. One of the major triggers for newly recovering addicts are the cravings for drugs that the addict experiences as a result of stress or other cues in their environment. Cravings are powerful psychological and physiological reactions in the brain that create strong memories of drug use in an addict that can last for years.
A major step in putting together an effective relapse prevention program to achieve long-term recovery, it is important to clearly define what cravings are, how they happen, what triggers drug cravings and the underlying psychology behind this phenomenon.
The Definition of Craving
In the framework of drug and alcohol addiction, craving can be simply defined the intense desire or hunger for drugs and alcohol. As stated earlier, these desires can remain with an addict for months and even years after drug use has ceased. Drug use is extremely reinforcing and it can produce incredibly powerful memories that are linked to specific environmental cues that have been connected to an addict’s drug use through experience and reinforcement. This process of habituation, as well as the resulting changes in brain chemistry, gives birth to drug cravings.
How Do Drug Cravings Occur?
The origins of how we crave drug originates in the brain’s reward system. The structures of this reward system, which include the nucleus accumbens and amgydala, regulate the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of pleasure and euphoria when they are released into the brain and body. Dopamine serves as a motivator to repeat behaviors or activities that prompted this release, even those behaviors that are harmful to ourselves and other people.
All addictive drugs release varying amounts of dopamine into the nucleus accumbens and throughout the reward system. Stimulant drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine release the most dopamine while drugs such as alcohol and heroin release lesser amounts, but will release other neurotransmitters such as endorphins. While different drugs produce different effects in the reward system, they all activate the reward system. Therefore, the addict is motivated repeat drug-seeking behavior as well as the pleasure-seeking behaviors associated with drug and alcohol addiction.
What Can Trigger Drug Cravings?
The triggers that cause cravings in addicts can be grouped into three main categories. The first category are the environmental triggers which include the people, places and things that can induce cravings, such as friends’ houses where drug activity took place, bars, parks and street corners. The second category are the re-exposure triggers, which are events or circumstances that bring the recovering addict into situations where drug and alcohol use is occurring such as a party or family gathering. The third category of craving triggers are the stress triggers which commonly happen when the addict re-enters society after drug treatment.
The Psychology Behind Cravings
The way in which drug cravings get set into motion is through a process called habituation. Habituation can be defined as the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a continually repeated behavior. For example, natural reward-seeking behaviors such as for food, water and sex tend to decrease over time. When that occurs, the levels of dopamine released in the brain will also decrease. In other words, as the novelty and excitement of an activity decreases, so does the level of dopamine release.
For the addict, the process of habituation and the resulting decrease in dopamine release is the reason why they increase their drug intake. As the body gets used to a certain amount of a drug, the body develops a tolerance to that amount and as a result the addict needs to take more of the drug to achieve the desired pleasurable effect. Tolerance can lead to increased cravings for drugs and alcohol and the bonds between the use of substances and the environment in which they are used reinforces. These reinforced bonds create powerful and long-lasting memories that can last for years and even a lifetime.
Ways to Minimize Drug Cravings
No matter where you are at in terms of your recovery, the cravings to use drugs and alcohol can seemingly strike at any time. In the event that cravings surface, there are some simple things that you can do to minimize their grip on you.
A great way to minimize cravings is to engage is some form of mindful meditation. Meditation is one of the best ways to clear your mind and focus on what you are feeling in the present moment. There are many upsides to meditation practice; the techniques are easy to master, it can be done anywhere and at anytime, and you will experience great benefits from this practice in a little as 15 minutes daily.
Another way to combat drug cravings is to find healthy ways to express those feelings of anxiety that accompany cravings. Whether it is through journaling, art, writing poetry or playing a musical instrument, immersing yourself in your feelings and addressing what you feel is far better and healthier than trying to avoid them altogether.
Another great way to minimize cravings is to simply talking to someone. By talking to a trusted friend, family member or someone you know in recovery about what you are feeling, you will have a sounding board to vent your frustrations–and you may receive excellent advice on how to move past cravings.