A Compassionate Approach to Addiction Cravings

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A Compassionate Approach to Addiction Cravings

Topic at a glance:

  • What is a craving?
  • How can mindfulness and self-compassion help us deal with cravings?
  • How can I practice compassion when faced with craving?

Why You Need to Manage Addiction Cravings

If we are unable to manage our addiction cravings, it is unlikely we are going to achieve long-term recovery. This intense desire to drink or use again will often appear out of nowhere (at least that’s the way it seems), and if we don’t have a good strategy for dealing with this threat, it may be only a matter of time before we give into it. The good news is these cravings will tend to arise less and less frequently the longer we stay drug free, and we may reach a stage where they disappear almost completely.

There are many tools for dealing with addiction cravings, and you will learn about these during your time at Hope. Distraction and delaying tactics can be highly effective, especially in early recovery, and admitting to other people that we feel tempted is one of the most crucial steps we take.

Mindfulness offers an alternative method for dealing with addiction cravings. It involves leaning into this urge rather than trying to escape it. The benefit of this way of doing things is we lose our fear of cravings because we no longer feel at the mercy of them. Instead we feel empowered, and we can use this new skill to eradicate any other addictions in our life (e.g. nicotine or junk food). Mindfulness is highly effective technique for managing cravings, but in order to get the most out of it, we first need to develop our compassion.

What is a Craving?

A craving can be defined as a ‘programmed response’ to a trigger in our environment that we have learned to associate with the use of alcohol or drugs. It is comprised of a mental (e.g. ‘I really want to use’), physical (like a deep yearning in the body for the substance) and emotional component (e.g. feeling of excitement at the thought of using).

Mindfulness of Cravings

The physical and emotional components of a craving are much easier to deal with than the actual thoughts about using again. If we allow this pattern of thinking to gain too much traction on our attention, it can be like we have entered a fever dream, and we then feel powerless to prevent a return to addiction. We may not be able to do much to stop these thoughts arising, but we definitely do get to decide where we put our attention.

By moving our attention to the the physical aspects of cravings (the feelings in the body), it becomes much easier to manage these desires. Later as we increase our concentration and mental clarity through mindfulness practice, it becomes less of a challenge to deal directly with thoughts but in early recovery it is best if we focus on the physical.

A Compassionate Approach to Addiction Cravings

Cravings are a bit like fire. You have probably seen the fire triangle before (see image above). This tells us that in order for there to be a fire there needs to be oxygen, fuel, and heat – if we remove any of these, there can be no fire. As we already said, cravings involve thoughts, physical sensation, and feelings, and by focusing on any one of these, it effects the other two. If we put our attention on how the craving is affecting our body, and we do this in the right way, it will soon pass without putting our recovery in jeopardy.

How Can Compassion Help with Cravings

So what is this ‘right way’ of experiencing cravings in the body? It involves experiencing these sensations without judgement or resistance. This means being compassionate to our cravings – here ‘compassion’ refers to our willingness to be with discomfort.

When we start to experience cravings in this new open way, we may begin to wonder what the big deal is. These physical sensations aren’t painful, and they don’t last long – it is the thinking patterns generated by these sensations that are the real problem.

Urge Surfing for Cravings

Urge surfing is a mindfulness technique devised by G. Alan Marlatt. It requires a radical shift in our attitude towards cravings – instead of living in fear of these episodes, we develop more of a ‘bring it on’ mentality.

An urge is like a wave that increases in intensity before crashing harmlessly on the shore – the craving generally lasts less than 20 minutes unless it is being retriggered. The fact that we know a craving is only temporarily makes it easier to face with courage, and we can even start to enjoy doing this – sort of like a weightlifter ‘loving the burn’.

How to Use Compassion to Master Cravings

  • Develop the willingness to experience cravings in a compassionate way.

  • When cravings arise, try to focus on the physical aspects of it rather than getting trapped in the thinking.

  • Use mindfulness techniques (e.g. mala beads or mindful walking) to ground yourself if you are having trouble getting away from the relapse thoughts.

  • Remember that cravings are only temporary – they will soon pass.

  • Understand that cravings will appear less frequently as you continue your journey into recovery.

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