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Cravings: Understanding The Fundamentals of Why We Crave

Cravings 101: Understanding The Interesting Fundamentals of Why We Crave

4 Minute Read.

As I drove home on a Friday evening, travelling down my usual route,  I noticed a familiar sensation arise as I drove past the bottle shop, sensations of intense cravings. 

My body started to create reasons to pull in “come on man, you’ve done so well!” or “You’ve got it this time!”

Unfortunately, for individuals battling addiction, saying “we got this” is always, and will forever be, a lie.

Cravings are definitely a major roadblock for anyone battling an addiction, it makes us vulnerable, and is often a major cause for alcohol or drug relapse.

The truth is though, although alcohol or drug cravings can be relentless, painful, and seemingly endless, they are only temporary.

Cravings are old wiring in the body

A better way to describe cravings is our body’s old wiring or “source code” that no longer serves a purpose. Your brain uses habitual nature, which could also be seen as coping mechanisms for comfort, or a way out of a stressful situation. 

This mechanism is hardwired into our brains, it tricks us into thinking our addiction is the only way we can get by, but in reality, it most definitely isn’t.

Once you begin to learn the substance-cues or “triggers” I like to call them, you can be better at understanding and control cravings, and see how your body can be an enemy at times when it comes to one of them.

Over time, cravings can become a thing of the past.

Cravings are painful, and your brain will lie to you.

Before you start to go, yeah, sure, getting over cravings isn’t that easy, and I get it, cravings are freakin’ nasty.
There were so many times in my sober journey where I succumbed to the intense feeling of cravings, which sent me down some pretty rough patches.

I have done many long stints away from alcohol, only for it to return with a vengeance because of one single lie my brain told me.

The thing with cravings is, although they’re painful, your brain will reason with you, you’ll forget the pain, just so it can get you to go back just one last time.

If you’ve been off alcohol or drugs for a while, it may even begin to say things like “come on, it’s been 6 months, you have proven to yourself you don’t have a drinking problem!”

This is a classic scenario, and often within’ 24 hours the sobriety reset button has been pushed.

Cravings on a biochemical level

Looking at it on a more biochemical level as to why we crave, why we get strong feelings or urges, is often the state of our neurotransmitters.

Heavy alcohol or substance abuse alters neurological pathways including dopamine, glutamate, GABA, adrenaline, and opioid systems. Each of these systems, when they’re out of balance, causes an array of unpleasant symptoms, and one that often comes up, again and again, is cravings.

For example, a dopamine imbalance creatives addictive tendencies, and high levels of glutamate cause agitation and anxiety, making us more likely to venture out and seek comfort in alcohol or drugs.

If you’re still scratching your head, don’t worry, I wrote a post a while back about Understanding The Neurochemistry Behind Addiction And Sobriety.

Our cravings are closely linked to the balance of our neurotransmitters, and the state of our brain’s stress handling pathways. They’re also heavily influenced by the various lifestyle factors we take on in an attempt to cope with going sober.

This means, although we’re kicking addiction to the curb, if we’re getting poor sleep, not eating well and stressing out at work, we’re probably not setting ourselves up for long-term sobriety at all.

One big thing we must do is ensure we’re first doing The Core Essentials In Tackling Cravings.

We also must understand substance-cues, which actually also put us at greater risk for alcohol or drug relapse.

Substance-cues or “Triggers”

One thing I established after long stints of sobriety, and over the course of my time writing my book, were certain scenarios or events that flared up or exacerbated cravings.

I figured, if we could better understand these substance-cues I like to call them, or more simply “triggers”, we could create better stress adaptation, and shift our coping mechanisms. 

When we encounter triggers, drug-cues or stress-induced craving states, our ability to control impulse drops, and our decision-making becomes poor. 

When we strike out on both impulse and choice, which may just default back to old wiring, we have a far greater tendency to unintentionally push the reset button and relapse.

Let’s look at the four categories these triggers fall into

  • Perceived opportunity triggers – These are triggers where your body sees or senses an opportunity to relapse, which are generally followed with intense cravings. There are many examples where this scenario can play out, could be as simple as passing a bottle shop or bar on your way home, or even the time of day or week.
  • Attention allocating triggers – This involves the amount of mental allocation or brainpower one puts on thinking about the addiction, which can bring on an overwhelming craving. This also tends to severely deplete our willpower, something we will discuss later on down the track. Attention allocating triggers reduce our self-control, and thus, increasing our risk for relapse. 
  • Stress triggers – Daily stress can reduce one’s concentration and judgment, bringing about an increased risk of impulse, leading to a poor choice being made. Remember, our old wiring doesn’t have good stress coping mechanisms yet, so stress can be a biggie. Stress could also be work, family, or even diet-related, not something to be overlooked.
  • Priming triggers – This one is where your body loves to lie to you, generally happening when an individual deeply believes they can now control themselves this one time. This is usually when a former drinker goes six to eight months and attempts to resume occasional drinking in hopes that their addiction is gone, and it isn’t. This sort of activity begins to re-prime the craving pathway, which is why it’s called a “priming” trigger. 

When you begin to become more familiar with these four triggers, you can better understand situations or events where cravings will probably get harder. 

I write more about these triggers over in this article – Identifying Triggers: How to Recognize and Manage the Cues That Lead to Drinking

Over time, we get better at managing these situations, and as the grasp of addiction slowly fades over time, these scenarios get much easier to approach.

The Takeaway

There’s no hiding it, but when we’re looking to get sober, cravings suck.

On the other hand, if we can continue to remind ourselves that the craving is only temporary, and avoid substance-cues, we can slowly re-wire our brain over time.

When we re-wire our brain, cravings become a thing of the past, and we can finally get sober, and stay sober for good.

If you have any feedback regarding this article, reach out. Help Clarity reach more people and quit addiction by following us on Instagram, it’s also the perfect place to message us and ask questions!

All the best in health,
Former Drinker & Clinical Nutritionist
Stephen Brumwell.