Handling Urges to Drink

As you change your drinking, it's normal and common to have urges or a craving for alcohol. The words "urge" and "craving" refer to a broad range of thoughts, physical sensations, or emotions that tempt you to drink, even though you have at least some desire not to. You may feel an uncomfortable pull in two directions or sense a loss of control.

Fortunately, urges to drink are short-lived, predictable, and controllable. A recognize-avoid-cope approach, commonly used in cognitive behavioral therapy, helps people to change unhelpful thinking patterns and reactions.

Recognize two types of "triggers"

An urge to drink can be set off by external triggers in the environment and internal ones within yourself.

  • External triggers are people, places, things, or times of day that offer drinking opportunities or remind you of drinking. These high-risk situations are more obvious, predictable, and avoidable than internal triggers.
  • Internal triggers can be puzzling because the urge to drink just seems to "pop up." But if you pause to think about it when it happens, you'll find that the urge may have been set off by a fleeting thought, a positive emotion such as excitement, a negative emotion such as frustration, or a physical sensation such as a headache, tension, or nervousness.

Consider tracking and analyzing your urges to drink for a couple of weeks. This will help you become more aware of when and how you experience urges, what triggers them, and ways to avoid or control them.

Avoid high-risk situations

At home, keep little or no alcohol. Socially, avoid activities involving drinking. If you feel guilty about turning down an invitation, remind yourself that you are not necessarily talking about "forever." When the urges subside or become more manageable, you may decide to ease gradually into some situations you now choose to avoid. In the meantime, you can stay connected with friends by suggesting alternate activities that don't involve drinking.

Cope with triggers you can't avoid

It's not possible to avoid all high-risk situations or to block internal triggers, so you'll need a range of strategies to handle urges to drink. Here are some options:

  • Remind yourself of your reasons for making a change. Carry your top reasons on a wallet card or in an electronic message that you can access easily, such as a mobile phone notepad entry or a saved email
  • Talk it through with someone you trust. Have a trusted friend on standby for a phone call, or bring one along to high-risk situations.
  • Distract yourself with a healthy, alternative activity. For different situations, come up with engaging short, mid-range, and longer options, like texting or calling someone, watching short online videos, lifting weights to music, showering, meditating, taking a walk, or doing a hobby.
  • Challenge the thought that drives the urge. Stop it, analyze the error in it, and replace it. Example: "It couldn't hurt to have one little drink. WAIT a minute—what am I thinking? One could hurt, as I've seen 'just one' lead to lots more. I am sticking with my choice not to drink."
  • Ride it out without giving in. Instead of fighting an urge, accept it as normal and temporary. As you ride it out, keep in mind that it will soon crest like an ocean wave and pass.
  • Know your "no." You're likely to be offered a drink at times when you don't want one. Have a polite, convincing "no, thanks" ready. The faster you can say no to these offers, the less likely you are to give in. If you hesitate, it allows you time to think of excuses to go along. Click here for more ways to build drink refusal skills. [link to “Building your drink refusal skills”]
  • Leave high-risk situations quickly and gracefully. It helps to plan your escape in advance.

With time, and by practicing new responses, you'll find that your urges to drink will lose strength, and you'll gain confidence in your ability to deal with urges that may still arise at times. If you are having a very difficult time with urges, or do not make progress with these strategies after a few weeks, then consult a doctor or contact IMPACT for support. Get help for yourself or a loved one.

 

This information is adapted from the Combined Behavioral Intervention Manual: A Clinical Research Guide for Therapists Treating People with Alcohol Abuse and Dependence. It can be used with counseling or therapy and is not meant as a substitute for professional help.