Changing an addictive habit usually means coping with sometimes relentless cravings. A craving often dominates thinking and interfere with the daily routine. Many people give up because they believe they can't function without their habit. Remember that urges, in and of themselves, are normal. We all experience craving in varying degrees every day. Because your habit has been important to you for a long time, it is unreasonable to expect urges to vanish completely. If they do, don't be surprised if they occur a month or two down the road. For the purpose of this article, craving and urges will be used synonymously. The "three Ds" can be helpful in coping with urges and craving, whether these urges are related to alcohol or drug use, overeating, tobacco use or any habit you are attempting to change. The Ds stand for:
- Disputing expectancies, and
Especially early in your change efforts, cravings can seem excruciating. Everything you see can remind you of your habit. If you smoke, every room you enter may bring to mind the image of a cigarette and associated pleasure. The inability to satisfy the urge can lead to frustration and inner statements like, "I can't stand this!" or "There is no way I will be able to live without giving in. I'll just go crazy!" Statements like this can be overwhelming." Remember that urges are normal and typically decline in intensity as you continue changing. Avoid extreme adjectives like "horrible" or "unbearable." Belief in horrible extremes only makes you feel worse. Just how unbearable is your urge right now? To accurately answer, think of truly unbearable suffering. Is your current state as unbearable as getting punched repeatedly in the stomach? Bamboo shoots under your fingernails? Watching a loved one get hurt? What have you endured which was worse than your current urge? Did you survive? If so, does it follow that your urge is less than unbearable and perhaps only "very uncomfortable?"
Urges are, in essence, positive expectations. When we crave something, we expect it will create a pleasurable state, or reduce an unpleasant one. Urges are "myopic," they can only see advantages. You must shed some light on your craving to effectively control it. One good way to decrease the potency of an urge is to focus on its negative consequences. Ask yourself questions like:
- "How will I feel later if I give in to my urges?"
- "What consequences might I suffer if I give in?"
- "Will the negatives outweigh the positives in the long run if I give in?"
Another way to cope with urges is to imagine that someone very close to you is having the urge. How would you convince them to resist? Separating ourselves from urges is often required to respond to them objectively.
Some urges are so relentless that talking back to them doesn't work. Good old-fashioned distraction is sometimes the only medicine that can pull your thoughts away. Distraction can be "cognitive," in the form of some mental exercises, or "behavioral," in the form of an alternate activity. Alternate activities are usually the most effective, in that urges tend to occur in environments similar to those the habit occurred in the past. If an urge feels overwhelming, remove self from the situation until it subsides. Cognitive distraction can be very powerful as well as convenient. You can use imagery to take your mind off particularly powerful urges. Conjuring a pleasant place like a beach, or a raft on a lake can help you take your mind off the urge and relax. Relaxing images are not helpful for everyone. Some even find that relaxation increases the strength of a craving. This makes sense. Many habits are associated with relaxation and pleasure. If this is true for you, find some mental task that will be very difficult to finish but is interesting and consuming. Think about developing Mental Tapes. Examples of helpful tapes are:
- Mentally writing the perfect epic novel or screenplay.
- Planning the perfect vacation.
- Creating the ideal money-making business.
- Interpreting a dream from the night before.
- Picking an acquaintance and trying to "figure them out."
What you choose will depend on your interests, but the key is to make it something easy, interesting, and fun to do. Here's what NOT to do: choosing to think about all the mistakes you've made this year; how you could have done things differently, what a failure you are ... These "tapes" won't be enjoyable. They may even increase your urges, especially if stress has precipitated your habit in the past. Though these techniques may feel awkward initially, with practice they can become almost automatic. Give them a try! What do you have to lose?
About the Author:
Robert Westermeyer, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist with the Center for Cognitive Therapy in La Jolla, California. He specializes in the treatment of Addictive Behavior.