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Triggers and Cravings

Why Do I Crave Alcohol?

July 28, 2023
25 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 28, 2023
25 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 28, 2023
25 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 28, 2023
25 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 28, 2023
25 min read

Cravings are slippery — and yet we know exactly what they are. Ever found yourself reaching for that wine bottle or considering another cold one more often than you’d like? Well, you’re not alone. Many people wonder, “Why the heck do I crave alcohol?”

In The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, British author and addiction specialist Allen Carr gives one of the most spot-on descriptions of cravings, calling them “an empty, insecure feeling” similar to hunger. Unlike hunger, however, there’s often an uneasy flavor to it: you want something, but you don’t want to want it. Worse yet, giving in to cravings tends to make them appear more and more frequently.

When it comes to alcohol cravings, it’s not just about wanting an “aah” moment after a long day, or trying to drown out a bad one. The truth is that alcohol cravings are a mix of biology, psychology, and social environments. So today we’re pulling the curtain back on those cravings and giving you some tools to handle them! Let’s uncover the four main mechanisms behind cravings and explore some ways to handle them.

1. Biology and Brain Chemistry: The Body’s Tug of War

Our brain likes to feel good. When we drink alcohol, it releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that signals pleasure and reward. Over time, and with regular consumption, the brain starts to associate alcohol with that lovely dopamine surge. When we don’t drink, the brain goes, “Hey, where’s my feel-good chemical?” This can lead to cravings.

We often think of our brains as sophisticated command centers, always rational and analytical. And while that might be true about the prefrontal cortex, the more primitive “lizard brain” behind the reward circuit is a lot like an eager toddler in a candy store when it comes to seeking pleasure. How is this pleasure-seeking system linked to our alcohol cravings?

Dopamine: The Star of the Show

When we do something enjoyable — such as eating a delicious meal, laughing at a joke, or yes, drinking alcohol — our brain releases dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. When we consume alcohol, dopamine floods our brain, and over time, our brain starts to think, “Hey, alcohol equals a good time!”

Research shows that with repeated alcohol consumption, the brain starts anticipating the dopamine surge. So even before we take that first sip, just the thought of drinking can get our dopamine factories revved up! It’s like when we think about a chocolate cake in the middle of the night — even without tasting it, we can already feel that sweet delight.

Adaptation: A Double-Edged Sword

Our brains are also masters of adaptation. Drink regularly, and the brain thinks it's getting too much of a good thing. In response, it might produce less dopamine over time or reduce the sensitivity of dopamine receptors. The result? We need more alcohol to achieve the same “feel-good” effect. It's a bit like needing more and more coffee to wake up if we’re regular caffeine consumers.

When we try to cut back or quit, the brain objects, looking for its dopamine surge. With the absence of regular alcohol-induced dopamine releases, we might feel down or experience a mood dip. That's the brain urging you to get back to your old ways, otherwise known as the withdrawal effect.

2. The Emotional Band-Aid: When Feelings Meet Booze

As much as we’d like to deny it, our emotions play a huge role in many of our choices. From the clothes we wear based on our mood, to the comfort food we reach for after a tough day, our feelings often steer the ship. The relationship between emotions and alcohol is no different.

For some, alcohol becomes a trusted ally against stress, sadness, or anxiety. But here's the catch: while it seems to provide temporary relief, it doesn’t fix the root cause of these emotions. Over time, we might find ourselves craving a drink whenever these feelings emerge, because the brain has made a connection: “Feeling down? Alcohol will fix it!”

In this way, alcohol serves as an instant emotional band-aid. Had a rough day? A drink might make it feel better. Feeling anxious about an upcoming event? A little booze might take the edge off. Over time, this pattern can create a more ingrained reflex in the brain: a negative emotion surfaces, and we instinctively reach for a drink to “soothe” it without giving it a second thought.

Why It Seems To Work (But Doesn’t Really)

Since alcohol is a depressant that slows the nervous system, the initial effects often do, in fact, feel calming. But here's the twist: while the immediate effects might seem relaxing, in the long run, science shows that alcohol can increase feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s like using a leaking bucket to carry water: it might seem helpful initially, but we’re losing more than we’re gaining as the brain’s natural neurotransmitter levels tip in the other direction.

In addition to depleting our dopamine levels over time, the brain overcompensates by releasing dynorphin to counteract the excessive release of dopamine. Instead of producing pleasure, dynorphin does the opposite: it decreases dopamine production, inducing feelings of dysphoria. This is the brain's way of keeping us chemically and emotionally balanced.

The Cycle of Emotion-Driven Drinking

Over time, with repeated exposure to pleasurable stimuli, the brain releases more and more dynorphin to counteract the high dopamine levels. This reduces the overall sensitivity of the brain's reward system, making it harder to feel pleasure from everyday activities and potentially leading to a cycle of increased substance use to reach the original high.

Here’s the cycle many folks find themselves in: they drink to cope with an emotion, the effects of the drink wear off, and they’re left with the same (or heightened) emotional distress, leading them to drink again. It's a loop that can be hard to break, especially if the underlying emotional triggers aren’t addressed.

Diagram about the common triggers for alcohol cravings
Building New Emotional Connections

The good news? Just as our brain can create associations between emotions and drinking, it can also learn new associations. This means we can train the brain to link challenging emotions with healthier coping strategies — talking to a friend, indulging in a hobby, or simply taking a few deep breaths. We are ultimately in the driver’s seat as far as our response to emotions, and by understanding the reasons behind our cravings and building new, positive associations, we’re taking charge of our journey.

3. Social Environments: It’s Everywhere!

Let's be real: we live in a culture where alcohol is often the centerpiece of social activities. From dinners to celebrations, to watching a football game — it's there. 

These scenarios can create associations between fun times and alcohol in our minds. When invited to such events, the brain jumps in with a nudge: “You’ll have more fun with a drink!” Over time, this cements the idea that to celebrate, commemorate, or even commiserate, a drink must be in hand, creating social cues around booze.

Ever been to a gathering where everyone is holding a drink and felt a bit out of place without one? That's social cue activation in play. Sometimes, it's not even a genuine craving, but the pressure to fit in that drives us to pick up a glass. It's a little like wearing a certain fashion because everyone else is doing it, even if it's not quite "you." (That said, it’s important to note that we should never feel obligated to drink, no matter what others around us are doing. Social pressures can make things tricky, but in most cases people will respect our decisions — and if they don’t, chances are the reason has to do with their own struggles or insecurities.)

The Mirror Effect

One reason we are naturally driven to “fit in” has to do with mirror neurons — the neurological mechanism behind empathy that helps us pick up on the emotions and actions of those around us by triggering the corresponding pathways in the brain even though we’re not experiencing the same stimuli directly. When everyone is laughing, clinking glasses, and sipping away, our brains want in. So even if we weren't initially in the mood for a drink, our mirror neurons can change our mind.

Setting Boundaries and Shifting Perspectives

This doesn’t mean you should start avoiding every social scenario with alcohol. Instead, recognize these influences and set boundaries. Your boundary can be choosing a non-alcoholic drink that you genuinely enjoy, or focusing on the conversations and connections instead of the drink in hand.

Navigating social waters where alcohol is omnipresent can be a tad challenging. But as with any challenge, it's also an opportunity — a chance to listen to your inner voice, set your course, and dance to your own tune, even if it's a bit different from the crowd's. After all, being authentically you is always in style!

4. Habit Loop: Routine in Play

Finally, one of the “stickiest” causes of cravings has to do with the habit loop. Have a routine of wine with dinner? Or a beer after mowing the lawn? These can become habitual. When a habit is formed, the brain switches to autopilot. The moment you sit for dinner or finish mowing, the brain signals it’s time for that drink.

While habits are related to the neurochemical reward circuit, emotional triggers, and social pressures we discussed earlier, they can be even trickier to address since they can extend beyond those factors. Even in the absence of a physical “need” for alcohol, an emotion that we want to escape, or a social situation driving us to conform, drinking can become ingrained in our lives as something that we “do” on a regular basis — with or without an identifiable “reason.”

The Three-Step Dance of Habits

Habits generally follow a three-step loop:

  • Cue. This is a trigger that initiates the behavior. For instance, finishing a workday might signal it's time to unwind.
  • Routine. This is the actual behavior or action. In our context, it could be pouring and sipping on a drink.
  • Reward. The outcome that your brain enjoys and wants to remember for the future. With alcohol, it might be a feeling of relaxation or euphoria.

This loop, once established, can be hard to break because it's been reinforced over time. It becomes an automatic response.

Why? Our brains are efficiency experts. When a pattern is repeated often enough, the brain conserves energy by turning that sequence into a habit. That's why, after driving home countless times, you might pull into your driveway and wonder, "How did I get here so quickly?" It’s the same thing with alcohol. If we regularly have a drink at a particular time or situation, the brain goes into autopilot.

Hijacking the Habit Loop

The mere fact that a habit has formed doesn't mean that it’s set in stone. The trick is to recognize the cue and replace the routine while still achieving a similar reward. If the cue is stress and the routine is drinking, for instance, we can replace drinking with a short meditation session, a walk, or listening to some favorite tunes — anything that provides relaxation (the reward).

Habits shape our days in more ways than we might realize. By understanding the rhythm of our routines and being proactive, we can rewire our habits to help steer us toward our goals.

Goodbye, Cravings!

Now that we have a better idea of what drives our cravings, let’s chart a new course of action!

Here are some ideas for dealing with cravings when they strike:

  • Mindful awareness. Start by recognizing your craving without judging it. “Oh, there’s that craving again.” By acknowledging it without acting on it, you can let the urge pass.
  • Train the brain with new rewards. Recall the dopamine-driven reward system? To counterbalance the pleasure associated with alcohol, find alternative sources of dopamine. Perhaps it’s a delicious mocktail, a piece of dark chocolate, or a five-minute dance break! Whatever it is, the new experience can give your brain the pleasurable hits it craves, sans alcohol.
  • Emotional journaling. Tap into the power of self-awareness. Whenever you feel the urge to drink, jot down the emotion you're experiencing. By tracking patterns over time, you'll develop a clearer picture of emotional triggers, empowering you to address them directly.
  • Shuffle the habit deck. The next time that habitual drinking cue strikes, shake things up to replace the routine. Maybe sip some herbal tea or head out for a brisk walk. Disrupting the familiar loop can recalibrate the brain's automatic responses over time.
  • Engage with dynorphin knowledge. Acknowledge the power of dynorphin. When you feel that post-high low, remind yourself it's a natural brain response, not a genuine need for more alcohol. This awareness can prevent overconsumption in pursuit of a diminishing pleasure return.
  • Stay active. Engaging in physical activity, whether it’s a brisk walk, yoga, or a weightlifting session, can help in releasing endorphins — another one of those feel-good chemicals — and act as a distraction to reduce the intensity of the craving.
  • Taste adventures. Explore teas from around the world. The diverse flavors and rituals associated with tea preparation can become a fascinating replacement for the alcohol tasting experience.

In addition to learning how to deal with cravings directly, it helps to restructure your daily life to make it easier to stay on track:

  • Design social situations. Planning to attend a gathering? Arrive prepared. Carry your favorite non-alcoholic drink or, better yet, introduce a fun mocktail for everyone. When you're the trendsetter, it's easier to sidestep the pull of alcohol-focused social cues.
  • Set visual goals. Create a visual representation of your alcohol-free days, such as a calendar where you mark off each successful day. Watching your progress can be motivating and offers a tangible reminder of your determination and growth.
  • Mini challenges. Set up mini challenges for yourself. For instance, for every day you resist a craving, add an extra minute to your morning jog or meditation session, or an extra page to your reading. It's a way to celebrate your victory while also boosting another aspect of your wellness.
  • Create alcohol-free zones. Dedicate certain areas of your home, like the bedroom or the study, as alcohol-free zones. This physical separation can act as a reminder and barrier against impulsive drinking.
  • Declutter. Rid your environment of excessive alcohol. Having fewer bottles around can reduce the visual cues that spark a craving.
  • Digital detox. Sometimes, seeing others indulge in drinks on social media can trigger cravings. Designate specific times in your week for a digital detox. Use this time to connect with nature, read, or pursue other offline hobbies.
  • Manage stress. Find healthier ways to deal with stress. This might mean deep-breathing exercises, meditation, a few quick jumping jacks, or a simple hobby like painting or reading.
  • Build a support squad. There's incredible strength in numbers. Connect with people who share your goal of reducing alcohol intake. Whether you join an online group, attend support meetings, or simply rope in a friend, cheerleaders can make the journey smoother.

Beyond the Craving

Understanding why we crave alcohol is the first step in navigating and managing these urges. By getting to know our triggers and equipping ourselves with actionable steps, we’re setting a foundation for a healthier, more empowered relationship with alcohol.

There’s even better news. It’s easy to see alcohol cravings as nagging adversaries, incessantly reminding us of a past we might want to leave behind. But what if we flipped the script? What if, nestled within these urges, there was a powerful opportunity waiting to be harnessed?

Transforming Cravings Into Catalysts

Managing cravings, in all their persistent tug and pull, offers us a unique chance to reclaim control of our lives. Each time we face a craving head-on, it becomes more than just resisting temptation. It turns into a conscious choice to prioritize our well-being, our dreams, and our future.

Every craving we overcome is a stepping stone, an evolution towards a life more vibrant, authentic, and fulfilling than ever before. We are not only saying “no” to alcohol. We're also saying a resounding "yes" to personal growth, new hobbies, and deeper connections. It's all about adding layers of richness, building resilience, and crafting a life narrative filled with intent and purpose.

So as we forge ahead, let's remember that cravings, once seen as setbacks, can actually be the very catalysts that propel us into a future brighter and better than anything we've known before — a beautiful journey of self-discovery and unparalleled growth!

Summary FAQs

1. What role does brain chemistry play in alcohol cravings?

Dopamine, a "feel-good" neurotransmitter, is released when we consume alcohol. Over time, this can lead our brain to associate alcohol with pleasure. However, with frequent consumption, our brain may adapt, potentially leading to an increased alcohol intake to achieve the same pleasurable feeling.

2. How do emotions link to the urge to drink?

Alcohol can act as an emotional band-aid, offering a temporary feeling of relief from negative emotions. This can lead to a pattern where drinking becomes a go-to coping mechanism, even though in the long run, alcohol might heighten feelings like anxiety and depression.

3. Is alcohol really a big part of social situations?

Yes, from historical celebrations to modern-day gatherings, alcohol has often been central to social scenarios. This prevalence can sometimes exert social pressure or cues, making one feel the need to drink to fit in.

4. What's a habit loop, and how does it relate to drinking?

A habit loop consists of a cue (trigger), a routine (behavior/action), and a reward (outcome). If regularly drinking becomes part of this loop, it can turn into an automatic response, making it challenging to break the cycle.

5. Can I change my habits related to alcohol?

Absolutely! Recognizing the cue and substituting the routine (drinking) with another action that offers a similar reward can help in reshaping the habit.

6. Why might I feel down when I try to cut back on alcohol?

As you cut back, your brain might miss the regular dopamine surges it associated with alcohol. This can lead to feelings of mood dips or withdrawals. However, over time, the brain adapts, restoring its natural balance.

7. What can I do to reduce alcohol cravings in social settings?

Recognize the social cues and set boundaries. Opt for non-alcoholic drinks you enjoy, focus on the conversation, or engage in activities that divert attention from drinking. Remember, you can navigate social situations on your terms.

Revamp Your Life With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

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