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Triggers and Cravings

Why Do I Have Alcohol Cravings When I'm Stressed?

October 26, 2023
10 min read
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Written by
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.
October 26, 2023
10 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.
October 26, 2023
10 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.
October 26, 2023
10 min read
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Reframe Content Team
October 26, 2023
10 min read

Many of us can probably relate: we’re driving home from a stressful day at the office and can’t wait to walk in the door, uncork a bottle of wine, and plop down on the couch. Or we reach the end of a week from hell and want nothing more than to crack open a cold beer. In other words, when our stress levels spike, so do our alcohol cravings.

There’s a well-established link between stress and alcohol use. In fact, many people who struggle with alcohol misuse report social stressors such as family or workplace conflict as triggers of craving and relapse. But, why do we crave alcohol when we’re stressed? Let’s dive in!

Understanding Why Cravings Happen

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Drinking alcohol activates our brain’s reward system. Like other drugs, alcohol floods our brain with dopamine — that “feel good” chemical that keeps us coming back for more. As soon as we start drinking, our dopamine levels spike, creating a sense of happiness or euphoria and an apparent ease of stress and anxiety.

When we use alcohol to destress, decompress, or relax (as many of us do) our brain begins to form associations. It starts connecting drinking alcohol with a feeling of relief and reward. As we continue to use alcohol in these moments, the association is strengthened in our brain’s pleasure center.

If this association becomes strong enough, even just the thought of having a drink can increase dopamine levels. When we do consume alcohol, even more dopamine is released. As the dopamine continues to ramp up, it can lead to an acceleration of consumption. In other words, what we said would be just one drink to “take the edge off” suddenly becomes several.

Eventually, cravings become an automatic response to a trigger, such as a stressful situation. Our brain immediately remembers the positive experience with alcohol and sends signals, or cravings, that encourage the behavior.

Besides stress, there are many different types of triggers, both internal and external. Internal triggers include memories, thoughts, or other emotions like sadness, anger, or anxiety that prompt the urge to drink. External triggers refer to environmental cues that we link to alcohol, such as particular places, times, people or situations. This is why a craving can occur spontaneously — for instance, by seeing those around us drinking or walking by our favorite bar.

Illustration of body's stress response system

Alcohol’s Effects on Stress

Interestingly, while many of us have learned to turn to alcohol for relaxation and as a way to deal with stress, the relationship between alcohol and stress is complicated. Research indicates that alcohol triggers chemical changes in our brain that lead to short-term relaxation, but long-term stress. Alcohol also changes how our body responds to stress, making it harder to cope without it. 

Here’s how it works: as a depressant, alcohol has the power to calm us down and make us feel more relaxed in the moment. However, alcohol also activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis — a major part of our body’s stress response system. 

The HPA axis regulates metabolism, the immune system, and the autonomous nervous system to help our body maintain homeostasis. Adding alcohol to our system throws off this balance, making it harder to return to a healthy state. 

Alcohol causes higher amounts of cortisol, the stress hormone, to be released in our brain, altering its chemistry and resetting what our body considers “normal.” It also shifts our hormonal balance and changes the way our body perceives and responds to stress. 

In fact, studies have found that people who drink heavily are more likely to experience higher anxiety under stress compared to people who don’t drink or who drink in moderation. Although alcohol seems to provide temporary relief from stress, people who drink more will have higher levels of stress over the long term.

How To Stop Alcohol Cravings Linked to Stress

Now that we know that alcohol actually leads to more stress, it’s best to avoid turning to it as a coping mechanism. But, what happens when that craving comes? What are some healthier alternatives to managing stress? And what are some methods to stop alcohol cravings?

We need to be careful not to replace our alcohol craving with something equally addictive, like smoking or gambling. Instead, we should focus on doing things that support our overall health and well-being.

Keep in mind that when a craving for alcohol strikes, it can help to acknowledge it and remind ourselves that it will usually go away in a few minutes. Here are some healthier alternatives to turn to when we’re feeling stressed: 

  • Get moving. Physical activity is one of the most effective tools for managing stress and cravings alike. Even just walking can lead to the release of endorphins, helping ease stress and enhance our mood. Regularly walking outside is particularly beneficial; time in nature has been shown to promote calmness and reduce tension. 

    The key is to find something you enjoy doing, whether that’s going for a run, doing yoga or Tai Chi, or taking a group exercise class. Plus, in the long-term, exercise helps combat the physical effects of stress, keeping your heart healthy and strong. 
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is another effective tool for reducing stress and anxiety. It’s been shown to reduce activity in the amygdala, part of the brain central to switching on the stress response. Similarly, mindfulness anchors you in the present moment and can help interrupt the stress response by allowing you space to respond instead of react. 

    You can practice mindfulness by bringing awareness to your emotions, allowing them to exist, not judging them, and remembering that they will eventually pass. You can also practice gratitude by making a list of the things you’re thankful for, as this helps train the brain to focus on the positive. 

  • Use relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation, can help lower stress and stop alcohol cravings. These techniques activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for helping your mind and body relax.

At Reframe, we help people not only cut back on their alcohol consumption, but build healthier habits that lead to enhanced physical and mental well-being. If alcohol has been your go-to stress reliever for years, you’re not alone! Reframe has helped millions of people like you develop a healthier way of living.

Rethink Your Alcohol Cravings 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!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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