In the last post, Am I an alcoholic?, we looked at how a habit works. Now we are going to look at how to break bad habits and stop cravings.
Although this will hopefully be helpful to anyone who drinks too much, if you suffer from physical withdrawal symptoms, such as shakes, nausea or hallucinations, please see a professional to decide the best course of action.
What is a habit?
Based on James Clear’s book Atomic Habit, a habit has four distinct elements that follow the same pattern every time. These are
You brain is constantly seeking a reward and has associated many things with the reward: these are the cues. The cue triggers a craving, we respond to the craving and the brain receives its reward. For someone who drinks alcohol, as we saw in Am I an alcoholic , the rewards for drinking are initially huge, so the brain continues to want these rewards. The more often we drink, the more developed the neural pathways to this reward becomes. The more we drink, the more cues become associated with the drinking reward.
This is why it is so hard to break the alcohol cycle.
Theoretically, to break the habit we have to change one element of this cycle. However, if only it was that easy!!!
People get caught up in the willpower cycle. They think that they can’t stop because they are weak and don’t have enough willpower. That is completely the wrong way to go about things! A lot of people who drink too much are often extremely strong and high achieving people.
If we get to the craving point of the habit then there is going to be willpower required to stop ourselves responding, so let’s go back a bit and see how we can avoid getting to that point.
We need to do a little work on ourselves before we even approach dealing with the habit. If anyone has woken up one morning, said I’m going to stop drinking, and just done it like that then please let me know how! As far as I know, it takes some background work first.
There is a famous quote, usually accredited to Einstein, which says “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. The fact is that to change anything we actually have to change something, and changing something often takes effort. So you have to know that you are willing to make that effort before you begin.
If you are doing this for someone else, or because you feel you should, it is very unlikely that anything is going to change. The problem is, we are often wanting to quit for the wrong reasons. We feel like we should stop drinking (for health, relationships, or a whole myriad of reasons) but we don’t actually want to stop drinking, because we still want that escape, stress relief, social easer and celebratory tool. We don’t want to stop drinking, we want to stop wanting to drink.
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How to want to stop drinking
See alcohol for what it really is
Alcohol contains ethanol. Ethanol is a toxic poison used in lots of things you would never consider putting in your body, and in its pure form it is likely to kill you (1). For adults, a lethal dose can be 1 litre of spirits or four bottle of wine (2).
Alcohol is created in the fermentation process, basically what happens when certain foods go off.
Alcohol depresses your central nervous system, making it harder for you to function normally. It also acts as a diuretic, making you wee more and become dehydrated – hangover time.
I know that when I was trying to quit, if I thought too much about what I was actually doing to my body it made me panic more, and how did I deal with panic and anxiety…..you guessed it! So I’m not going to go into anymore of the negative effects of alcohol. But it can be good to have it in the back of your mind that anything that makes your body feel the way alcohol does, can not be a positive thing for you.
Know why we want to drink
Put some time into working out why you want to drink in the first place. Have a look at my post Why do people drink? and write down or think about your reasons for drinking.
Acknowledge that alcohol is an illusion and not a friend
One of the traps we fall into is the idea that alcohol is our friend, our support, our soothing medicine. It is the idea that alcohol creates the fun that we have rather than the thing we are doing actually being fun. One of the most amazing things about being sober is that we can clearly see alcohol for the illusion that it is. It took me a long time to realise this, I was thoroughly in the ‘I need alcohol to have fun/relax/cope’ camp.
What had happened was that my brain was extremely comfortable with the ease of the pathway to my ‘reward’, alcohol. And even when the alcohol made me feel completely awful, I knew the feelings, I knew the results, I knew my life with alcohol, so I was comfortable in my struggle. So much scarier to leave everything I knew and try to be just….me.
My next post, How to beat the alcohol illusion, looks to tackle and dispel some of the myths around why we drink alcohol, so have a read.
Picture your life without it
Visualisation is a very powerful tool for bringing about change. I used Paul Mckenna’s meditation in Change your life in 7 days, but you don’t need to follow a meditation. Just think about what you want your life to be like. Why is it that you think you should stop drinking? Is it to improve your relationship? Is it to be a better parent? Is it to improve your health? Is it to feel and look better? Is it to attain some goal that is out of reach? When you have all your reasons, visualise yourself as the person you want to be as often as possible. Really take time doing this. Feel how it would feel to be that person. Use a visualisation board if you prefer something more solid to look at. This is not a tool to berate yourself with later, so make sure you only look at it as a positive force for change.
How to stop wanting to drink
Once we have established why we want to stop drinking, we can look at the habit. But, as my husband pointed out to me reading this over my shoulder, it is not about breaking the habit, it’s about changing the habit. Initially, it is easier to replace a habit with another habit than break it completely.
Have a plan
Essential to your quitting alcohol toolbox is a plan.
Your visualisation will have given you an image of your life without alcohol. However, often the image is so far from where you are now that it can seem disheartening. Mine was, as I described in What I learnt my first year sober, the floaty, bohemian, calm, hippy, zen, coping person – which was laughably far from what I was! So you need to have your image in the back of your head but put the focus of your plan into the baby steps you are going to take to move forward from your current position.
While it is good to write out or think about the steps you want to take to reach your goal, you don’t want to start too much at once. You are trying to reroute or create neural pathways. The more the pathway is trodden, the easier it becomes for your brain to use that route instead of your old bad habit route. If you start too much at once, you won’t secure that new pathway easily. So maybe choose one or two new habit, repeat them consistently, until they and you feel more secure.
What new habits?
My new habit was definitely exercise and yoga. I had done these things before but sporadically, in unsustainable intensive bursts. You know the type of thing, ‘I’m going to lose a stone and become really strong in a month’, then you go at it in a frenzied way until you realise you can’t sustain the pace, you’re not losing a stone that quickly, so you quit, feel crap, and slip back to your old, comfortable habits. To create these new habits, make them REALISTIC and SUSTAINABLE.
I mentioned before that I used T25 and Yoga with Adriene on You Tube. T25 is 25 minutes and Yoga with Adriene is normally between 16 – 30 minutes. I did these at home which made it realistic that, between work and parenting, I could find the time to do it. I planned it meticulously so that I would do it while the boys were at school and the baby napped. This made it sustainable.
Realistic and sustainable = consistent = new neural pathway = new habit!
Now, I can often find the time to do T25 and Yoga daily (if not yoga twice daily), and I can do it anytime, children or no children. The Baby often shouts ‘yoga’ in the morning and eats his breakfast while I’m doing it. The Bot will occasionally do T25 with me, he shows willing for about 10 minutes!
New habits that feel good
You have to create habits that you want to sustain. Trying to create a treadmill habit if you loathe the treadmill is not sustainable!
So have a think about what makes you feel good. Think about you as a child; sadly for many of us, pre-teens was the last time we actually did stuff that nurtured us and made us genuinely happy. As a child what did you do for fun? What did you absolutely love doing? What made you the happiest. This is a starting point to find new habits.
As we saw in the Am I an alcoholic?, the reward of alcohol has a lot to do with the chemicals in the brain. Luckily there are proven natural ways to get to the same reward.
These are, doing things that make you happy, listening to music, being in nature, absorbing sunlight, visualisation (see above), meditation, yoga, being with people you love, laughing and exercise.
Exercise is a guaranteed win on the feel good front! The idea of exercise puts so many people off but it really shouldn’t! There are so many different ways to exercise and there will be one that suits you. It doesn’t have to be pounding the street in your running shoes – although go for that if you love it! And it doesn’t have to take long, just increasing your heart rate for 20 minutes a day can be enough.
If you sign up for my free course below, it goes into more detail about different exercises and meditation
The 28 day alcohol free challenge joins exercise with community – really important when trying to quit drinking, as I talk about in How I Quit Drinking . They say find an exercise challenge – like a running club – which will combine the benefits of exercise and community not to mention the positive reinforcement to your self worth when you achieve something new.
Supporting new habits
There are also habits you can form that will help to support your body in its quest to stop drinking.
Drink water – being thirsty often has people reaching for an alcoholic drink. Apart from the fact that is insanity because alcohol dehydrates you, it is a huge cue for many people. By drinking regularly we should avoid feeling thirsty and avoid the cue.
Eat regularly – Similarly, swings in blood sugar levels make us crave sugar and for many of us that sugar is in alcohol. Try to eat regularly to avoid these swings.
Protein – eating protein has been shown to increase dopamine (one of those nice reward chemicals)
Sleep – get your sleep! We are far less able to manage anything if we are sleep deprived. It messes with our hormones and it is so much easier to slip back to old habits (I will write more extensively on sleep in later post because it is so important).
Equally though, it is EXTREMELY common for an alcohol habit to be replaced by food and especially sugar. Sugar has a similar effect to alcohol, triggering those neurotransmitters and hormones, and creating those happy feelings.
THIS IS OK! I am sure I will be shouted at left right and centre for saying this – but for me, for you, for your sobriety – do what you need to do! I ate loads of pizza, ice cream and sugar when I first stopped drinking – still do to be honest!
Coffee and doughnuts, yes please. Chocolate in the evening, yes please. I’m not saying this is a long term solution but if it works for you, stick with it, and eventually, when you are feeling more secure and stable, you can start to work on other things, if you want to. Even doing this, I still lost 8kgs in weight and am stronger, fitter and happier than I have ever been – so suck on that alcohol!!
I will just touch on this here because I have written about the importance of community in previous posts. I found Dry January amazing. It allowed me to be a part of something, be open, talk about my struggle, without all the stigma usually attached to saying you want to stop drinking (“Is she an alcoholic??”- see Am I an alcoholic for more on this). It was hard but it kept me going and I genuinely believe it started the changes in my thoughts that led me to stop drinking completely. There are so many challenges available now. Dry January, Sober Spring, Dry July, Go Sober for October, One Year No Beer. Just pick on and have a go.
Be kind to yourself
A common reason that we start and continue drinking is due to our own lack of self-worth. We are not enough without something else. When our unrealistic plans don’t amount to what we hoped, we berate ourselves and use it as proof of our hopelessness, uselessness and failure.
If this resonates with you please start to look at why you feel this way, alongside starting your new habits. I promise you will feel much better about yourself once you stop drinking, but learning to like yourself will make your sober journey so much easier. I have addressed this in my free course which you can sign up for at the bottom of this page. But if like me, you are into bibliotherapy, I found the following books amazing.
When you are building your new habits be extra extra kind to yourself. The 28 day alcohol free challenge says “bad habits need replacing not telling off”. If you slip up one day, that’s OK. If your day doesn’t go to plan, tell yourself you are amazing and tomorrow you will try again. If you baby ruins your yoga practice, it doesn’t matter! What matters for building these new neural pathways is that you do it consistently and kindly. Slip ups do not wipe out all the hard work you have done, but berating yourself, until you fall into your old patterns, can.
As you can probably tell, I could go on forever! But you might be asking yourself why this post is called How to stop alcohol cravings, when I’ve talked very little about cravings. This because I want you to live a sober life that is happy and free from cravings. I never thought that would be possible and that I would be fighting cravings every day, but that is so untrue!!
Much of this new habit forming happens before we actually stop drinking. Think about what your drinking cues are and if possible try to avoid them while forming your new habit. The more secure your new habits, the less deprivation you will feel when confronted with your old habit. But at some point you will come across cues that spark you old habit. For these times we need to learn how to deal with our cues, or as people often call them, our triggers.
– Have a trusted someone that you can talk to or rant at if you are really struggling not to respond to the cue
– Get away from the cue as quickly as you can
– Acknowledge the feeling. It is only a feeling, it cannot make you do anything, and it will pass.
– Drink water or something else and try to wait it out. If you are away from the cue, the craving should only last 10 minutes.
– Try to do something else in this time – preferably one or your new habits.
I hope this post has helped you to see how you can start to build new habits which will make it infinitely easier to change your old alcohol habits and lead to a happy life without cravings and feelings of deprivation. My next post, How to beat the alcohol illusion, will debunk the myths and reasons for drinking, as discussed in Why do people drink?