Craving – the obsessive desire to use drugs – is a natural byproduct of drug use itself. A person can have cravings on and off well after drug use stops and the physical signs of withdrawal are complete. The idea of having cravings is remarkably similar regardless whether the drug used is alcohol, cannabis, heroin, or cocaine.
Craving can be stimulated by almost anything. If a recovering person associates certain personal experiences with the patterns of former drug use, cravings can be automatically triggered. Some of these triggers are the people, places, things and situations that are associated with the drug use, but others can be driven by internal moods such as depression or anxiety. The primary mechanism for this becomes genetic as genes in a person’s DNA are turned on or off by the toxic drugs that are put into the brain. Once this happens, the propensity to use takes root and it is mightily hard to resist what has now become natural for the alcoholic or addict to do.
For a recovering alcoholic or drug addict, any drug use – even prescription medications – can keep the cravings strong. That is why the attitude of “I’ll just have one (beer, hit off a joint)” or “I’ll just do it now and then” does not work. Such dabbling with the drug keeps the flame of the craving alive and able to flare up at any time. Brain neurons in the reward circuit of the brain do not easily forget the source of enormous pleasure it has received from various drugs, and any use tickles them to awake and start the use cycle all over again.
Gradual exposure to the craving triggers and NOT getting high, with the help of friends in recovery and good planning, can weaken or even extinguish the cravings. Receptor sites on brain neurons can dry up when not in use and remain dormant for a lifetime through abstinence. Psychologists call this the deactivation of craving: People in recovery call it living life on life’s terms.
Complete abstinence, not using any drug or alcohol at all, is the surest way to reduce cravings.
Yet, it is difficult to stay away from drugs entirely. Occasionally, people will need to take pain medications for illness. They will literally need to take the drugs that can make them relive the cycle of obsession and compulsion that characterizes the disease of addiction. For these people, proper preparation and execution of a relapse prevention plan is critical. That will include making sure that the medicine is taken as prescribed, that perhaps someone dispenses the medication for the person, and that the medication is not taken unless there is justifiable pain.
Everything about cravings depends on the situation. Certain old triggers that have not be properly handled – such as old friends, neighborhoods, or places where drugs were taken – can lead to quick relapse. Alcoholics and addicts have conditioned themselves to think of the drug use when around these old people, places, or things, or situations, and they can be deadly for the recovering person. However, given the chance to be in such places when accompanied by close recovering friends (never alone) can make a difference in how the trigger is handled. Such triggers can remain strong even after many years of abstinence and only constant vigilance will protect the recovering person.
Determination and willpower are notoriously poor defenses against craving. In fact, addiction robs alcoholics and addicts of their ability to make healthy choices during early recovery and it sometimes takes years to have them restored to the point where they can be relied upon to help prevent a relapse. Real strength in this area comes from time, work, guidance, and support.
Changing lifestyle, gaining friends through support networks, learning new ways to relax and have fun, and being a productive person again all go a long way toward neutralizing cravings. But, the absolute requirement for turning away from cravings is to have some sense of being safe with oneself, or knowing that there are principles and values that act as guides in life, and practice a life-change program of recovery every day.
Even though cravings are the natural aftershocks of being addicted, it is important to honor the voice inside that questions whether it is wise to give in to the craving each time they arise. A recovering person gains confidence this way and begins to recognize that cravings do not have the power to overcome a person who has transformed themselves into a sober person in recovery.