Managing Cravings in Early Recovery

Updated: Jul 13

Have you committed to quit drinking, but still have a hard time not reaching for a beer when you’re stressed or tired? Or maybe you just celebrated a milestone in sobriety, when you suddenly find yourself struggling with intense cravings again? Cravings can be one of the hardest things to manage during recovery.


One acronym I like to use with clients to deal with inevitable urges during sobriety is H.A.L.T., which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. This frameworks is a reminder that cravings are often the result of more fundamental needs not being met. If we have insight into the connection between these emotions and our desire to use our substance of choice, we can be better prepared to avoid relapse.


Before picking up that drink, consider whether you are:


1) Hungry – Remind yourself of the Snickers slogan, “You’re not you when you’re hungry”. When we go a long period without eating, our body releases ghrelin, known as the ‘hunger hormone’. Research has shown ghrelin causes cravings for alcohol in the same way it increases our desire for food (Revitsky, 2013). Not eating also drops our blood sugar, making us irritable, shaky, and more likely we'll pour ourselves a drink. Eating small, nutrient dense snacks throughout the day can help avoid a potential relapse.

2) Angry – It's normal for life stressors to make us angry sometimes. We may be upset about a situation, a person, or ourselves. When we’re upset, our body’s sympathetic nervous system kickstarts the ‘fight or flight’ response, which raises our blood pressure and heart rate. It can take up to one hour for our body’s stress levels to return to normal. (Gans, 2019) While this may be useful for running away from a bear, it can leave us feeling frazzled and on edge in everyday life. Confront the source of your anger in a healthy way. For example, engaging in outlets like boxing or running can help you feel calmer and more balanced.

3) Lonely – Loneliness can be a major trigger to use your substance of choice. After all, we may believe alcohol and other substances are comforting. Unfortunately, drinking away loneliness makes us even more disconnected from others. Developing a support network you trust and can rely on is essential. Be proactive in making plans to connect with family, call up a friend, or attend a support group. Recognize that we don’t have to be alone to feel isolated – we can feel lonely in a crowded room.

4) Tired – Have you been getting enough rest to feel refreshed? It can be difficult when juggling work, family, and personal life. However, running on empty drains our ability to cope and makes it more likely to return to unhealthy patterns. Setting appropriate boundaries between different parts of your life can allow you to recharge your batteries. While that may mean cutting back on work, remember that nothing is more important than your mental health and wellbeing. Learning to say ‘no’ is critical to recovery.

The H.A.L.T acronym is a reminder to be attuned to your basic needs in sobriety. Of course, you also need to understand your own triggers, which may be entirely personal. For some, this may be passing their favorite bar where they used to drink, while others must be more vigilant when they break from their normal routine.


Whatever your trigger is, I recommend writing down when you experience cravings and connect it back to your thoughts or emotional state at the time. Try to label what you’re feeling. Are you angry or irritated? Do you feel uncomfortable? Then develop a strategy for managing those emotional states with healthy alternatives. That may be as simple as saying, “I know when I don’t eat, I start to feel irritable and want to drink. So I’ll make sure to have a small snack ready in case”. Once you’re better in touch with the underlying emotional states or situations that give rise to cravings, you’ll know when to sound alarm bells that you’re at higher risk for relapse.

Sources


Revitsky A. & Klein L. (2013). Role of ghrelin in drug abuse and reward-relevant behaviors: a burgeoning field and gaps in the literature. Current Drug Abuse Reviews. 6(3):231-44. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24502454

Zomerland, G. (2014). H.A.L.T. (Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired): A Self-Care Tool. Available at https://healthypsych.com/h-a-l-t-hungry-angry-lonely-and-tired-a-self-care-tool/

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