The Psychology Behind Drug, Alcohol Cravings

In the not-so-distant past, alcohol was really the only substance that was of any concern. As more and more people began to exhibit problem substance abuse behavior, people began wondering why most people didn’t have an issue with controlling their alcohol consumption while a growing number of people seemed determined not to exercise any self-control.

In most cases, people who habitually imbibed were punished, either by sending them to prison or insane asylums. The idea was that confinement would force these people to become sober while making them fear punishment would force them into abstinence; however, this was not the case. Instead, many of the individuals who had been punished for their inability to control their alcohol consumption quickly returned to their previous substance abuse.

The majority of society couldn’t understand why these people were returning to substance abuse in spite of knowing the consequences they were likely to face. In short, there was something more to alcohol abuse, and it was forcing people to defy their own logic by behaving in ways that contradicted what would have otherwise been in their best interests.

Today, there are many more substances to which people can become addicted besides alcohol although alcohol does remain a major problem. However, both alcoholism and drug addiction represent a single disease, and it’s a disease that has reached epidemic-level proportions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a number of other sources, approximately 10 percent of the U.S. population currently suffers from some form of chemical dependency, which is roughly 25 million Americans over the age of 12. These figures are staggering and convey just how serious an affliction that addiction really is.

For anyone suffering from an addiction, there are a number of recovery resources available that have proven effective at helping people to regain their sobriety and independence. However, recovering from an addiction to alcohol or drugs is a very complicated process. Each addict experiences addiction in a unique way, so, not every addict requires the same types of treatments.

On the other hand, there are certain features of addiction that tend to be common among addicts, and it’s important to know these features so that they can be addressed before patients graduate from rehab and return home. Specifically, one of the most concerning and complicated aspects of an addiction is the cravings virtually all addicts experience and which can make it incredibly difficult for a person to achieve lasting sobriety.

What Exactly Is the Phenomenon of Craving?

For most people, an addiction lingers for a somewhat extended time. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the best way to understand why addicts tend to be addicted for longer periods of time is to think about the mindset of an addict. Any addicted person is going to be aware of how others would perceive his or her chemical dependence, and loved ones are likely to try to interfere; so addicts try to keep their substance abuse a secret from just about anyone else, even lying about or denying the addiction if necessary.

Therefore, most addicts tend to prolong their own addictions, and since they’re spending extended periods of time abusing alcohol or drugs, the habit of substance abuse becomes ingrained into who they are. Much like a person’s hobbies or constructive habits characterize them as individuals, substance abuse also becomes part of their psychological makeup. This is what makes it so difficult for people to overcome addictions. Otherwise, they’d just stop consuming alcohol and drugs when they started experiencing consequences.

Through rehabilitation and even in extended recovery, addicts will often get reminded of their prior alcohol or drug abuse. This occurs because addicts will frequently come to associate certain people, places, things, sensations, situations, and so on, with alcohol or drug use; in most cases, these are things with which the addict interacted or encountered when either obtaining or using chemical substances or while intoxicated.

These reminders, or “cues”, stir something in their memory, which — due to the intoxication and euphoria associated with those memories — prod the pleasure circuits in the brain. In short, recalling their previous substance abuse makes them feel urges or desires for the substance to which they were previously addicted. The strength of these urges can range from “I’d like to use again” to “I need to use right now”, the latter of which is often the precursor to relapse.

Three Types of Craving Triggers

Cravings occur because they are evoked by certain cues. An addict will likely have dozens or even hundreds of cues, but a select few of those cues will inspire cravings that are especially powerful or strong; the cues that inspire these exceptionally-strong cravings are called triggers. There are three main types of triggers: environmental triggers, re-exposure triggers, and stress triggers. Environmental triggers are, as suggested by the name, external and situational, including the places, people, objects, and situations that induce strong cravings.

This might include a certain friend’s house where one frequently used drugs, a favorite bar where one often got intoxicated, or a person with whom one frequently used mind-altering substances. Re-exposure triggers are when those in recovery are brought into extremely close proximity to alcohol, drugs, and/or substance abuse, causing intense cravings since the substances to which they were addicted are within reach.

Stress triggers refer to situations that a recovering addict encounters after completing an addiction treatment program and returning to the community. In particular, it’s the stress caused by trying to adjust to being accountable for one’s sobriety and remaining abstinent while trying not to use alcohol or drugs to cope with hardship or adversity.

What’s Going on in the Mind During Drug Cravings?

When people in active addiction experience the phenomenon of craving, those cravings can be traced back and attributed to a concept called habituation. The concept of habituation refers to the decrease in sensitivity or sensation that occurs as a result of increasing or repeated exposure. In fact, habituation is very much related to the development of a tolerance to alcohol or drugs with repeated consumption.

When a person abuses alcohol or drugs, there’s a surge of neurochemicals in the brain that cause feelings of pleasure and euphoria. However, as the individual continues abusing alcohol or drugs, the surge of pleasure and euphoria begins to subside, becoming much less pronounced. The experience of cravings is due to the addicts wanting to experience the level of intensity that they felt when they first began consuming alcohol and drugs.

In other words, despite the effects of alcohol and drugs being less, it’s the initial, more pronounced effects that they associate with the substances to which they’ve become tolerant. And when recovering addicts are reminded of their previous experiences of intoxication and euphoria, they experience strong cravings for their substances of choice even though it’s been an extended period of time since they last imbibed.

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