Does this sound familiar? You have committed to not drinking today and so far so good. But then it happens. Just a whisper at first, but pretty soon you can’t ignore it. The craving is coming and you feel a growing sense of dread. You know you are in for an exhausting, unpleasant evening of either white-knuckling it (at best) or breaking a promise to yourself (more likely).
If this is you, you’re in good company. Most people believe the options for dealing with an urge or craving are:
· Answer the call and have the drink. Often accompanied by some of the old favorite tunes: “Screw it, I’ll start tomorrow” and “One drink won’t kill me.”
· Resist! White knuckle it, distract yourself until it passes, grit your teeth and give yourself a stern pep talk – you know this drill. Sometimes it works, but ultimately it feels exhausting and unsustainable. It’s like trying to stand up to a wave by digging in your heels and making yourself heavy. It works for a while, but eventually a big one comes and you’re under water.
BUT there is a third way that most of us are unfamiliar with and, good news, it’s the secret sauce. This option is to allow the urge without acting on it or resisting it. So instead of bracing for the wave, you make yourself light. As the wave comes in you float up with it and then back down to your feet. When the big one comes you give a little hop, ride it up, and land on your feet again. Perhaps wobbly and unsteady, but upright nonetheless. Here are three steps to get you started:
· Remind yourself that nothing has gone wrong! Your brain has become conditioned to expect alcohol when you think certain thoughts or feel certain emotions (e.g., “I need to take the edge off” → feel restless → drink). Your brain is doing what it was designed to do. You can decondition this pattern by allowing urges and rewiring your brain not to expect alcohol when you have these thoughts and feelings.
· Breathe and become the watcher. Breathe in for three and out for four. As you start to relax, begin to observe and describe your experience from a distance.
· Scan your body. Start at the top of your head and move down. What does the urge feel like? Describe it in detail. Is it hot in your solar plexus? Is it tight in your jaw? Is it heavy or light? Where does it show up? Focus just on the physical experience of it. When your mind wanders to thoughts (“this is so hard”), refocus on the physical sensations. Do this until the peak of the urge passes.
Is allowing an urge easy or comfortable? No. But neither is white-knuckling it or giving in and regretting it at 3 AM. That’s the less good news. But it gets easier, and you may as well put your discomfort to good use and build the life you want instead of staying stuck.