After the initial period of constantly fighting off cravings our recovery slowly settles down to be less demanding on a day-to-day basis until suddenly, out of the blue, we get hit by a huge craving. Just why these suddenly pop up is quite simple but takes a bit of explaining.
Cravings don’t come randomly, they are triggered by a completely automatic process in our brain that we have no control over or knowledge of… but it is still there and is called the “reward system”.
A circumstance in the past that has yielded alcohol is remembered in the reward system; we call this a trigger. When that circumstance is met again then the trigger fires and a craving is launched. We feel this as the sudden wanting or longing for a drink. When we drink in response to this craving then our brain gives us a reward (hence the name: the reward system). The reward is a sudden and large dose of dopamine released in our brain. This gives us an immediate feeling of well-being, ease, and comfort. Did you ever notice that on taking that first drink you felt an “aaaaahhhh!” wash through you? That wasn’t alcohol that did that, it was dopamine … it happened immediately didn’t it? before the alcohol could possibly have been ingested and carried through the blood to the brain.
The more often a trigger is successful is getting a result (i.e. when we drink in response to the craving) the more powerful it becomes, and it becomes more powerful in two ways. The next craving that this trigger will induce will be stronger, and the next dose of dopamine released if the trigger is successful will be bigger.
When we act on an existing trigger we make it more powerful, and when we drink in a new circumstance we create a new trigger. In this way we build up hundreds and hundreds of drinking triggers; people, places, things, sounds, smells, and emotions; things we have in the past had a drink in the presence of. Through repetition these triggers become very powerful and compelling indeed…. as you have no doubt become painfully aware.
Drinking triggers never go away… they are never forgotten. It is a feature of the brain that what has become known cannot become un-known. In this sense what’s said in some recovery circles is true, that once we are alcoholic we remain alcoholics for life. But we don’t have to resist huge cravings for the rest of our lives… that’s not how it works. We don’t get better at beating cravings, the cravings change.
We can’t ever remove a drinking trigger; once it is there it is remembered for life. But we can change how powerful it is. Just as a trigger gets more and more powerful when we drink in response to it, it gets less powerful if it is not successful. If we don’t drink when we get a craving then the trigger that initiated the craving becomes less powerful… and the craving next induced by that trigger becomes less powerful. This is incredibly important to know in recovery.
EVERY TIME WE DENY A CRAVING THEN THE INTENSITY OF THE NEXT CRAVING INITIATED BY THAT PARTICULAR TRIGGER IS DIMINISHED.
When we stop drinking then we suddenly face a continuous barrage of cravings. Virtually everything about our daily routine is a trigger, so initially it is impossible to know which trigger fires which craving. But as we repeatedly deny the cravings then they lose their intensity until eventually they fall to a level that we can step past them without too much difficulty.
Now, to the question in the title.
At first we meet all the routine and commonly met triggers, and we knock the power out of them by denying them one by one and time after time… but we don’t meet all our drinking triggers all the time; there are still some lurking in our reward system that are untouched and have their full strength. These are often triggers left behind when our circumstances changed; a different location, partner, job, routine… or simply a particular circumstance we don’t meet very often, like a hearing song or a person that we haven’t heard or met for a while. When we meet one of these triggers it can still have its full force. It fires a craving of the intensity it did last time it was fired, even if that was years ago. These cravings can be huge at a time when most of our cravings have become small. They catch us completely unaware as we’ve not experienced a big craving like this for a while and we’re not gee-ed up ready to fend it off.
The only defence against these is to know that they will happen from time to time. So try to simply recognise them as they come, and tell your inner-self “I’ve beaten bigger than that… is that all you’ve got?” It will pass quite quickly and is quite unlikely to pop up again any time soon.