How to Cope With Withdrawal Cravings

Michelangelo Gratton/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Cravings for alcohol or drugs are common among people who have been addicted, or even after a period of intense use. They are both physical and psychological in nature and are most intense during the acute withdrawal period the day or two after you stop using the drug or alcohol. They can, however, also occur months or years after withdrawal.

There are many theories about what causes cravings, but the bottom line is that if you have been addicted you will almost certainly experience cravings. Here are some key points you should understand if you're coping with cravings after withdrawing from an addictive substance:

Facts About Cravings

  • Cravings are normal. Researchers have discovered that people who have experienced addiction have chemical changes in their brains which make cravings more likely.
  • Cravings do not last forever. They come in waves — they build up, reach a peak, and then subside. Knowing this may make it easier to encounter and manage cravings.
  • Cravings do not mean there is a problem. The fact that you crave a substance does not mean that you are weak or unable to manage your desires.
  • Different people have different experiences with cravings. Some can actually ignore their cravings, while others need specific strategies to avoid temptations. 

Medications to Reduce Cravings

You are very vulnerable to cravings shortly after becoming abstinent. However, methods of overcoming cravings that rely on willpower alone often fail. There are medications that can reduce alcohol and substance cravings.

Without medications to help reduce opiate cravings, people who are addicted to opiates are at an increased risk of overdose death from Fentanyl. When used appropriately, methadone and buprenorphine can notably reduce opiate cravings and the risk of relapse.

Acamprosate, for one, can reduce craving for alcohol. Vivitrol is another, which can also reduce craving for opiates. Cravings will often increase with time off the substance, as with the alcohol deprivation effect, which is an increased preoccupation with alcohol after a period of abstinence.

Some craving for a variety of drugs can be reduced with an over-the-counter supplement called N‐acetylcysteine (NAC).

Why and When Cravings Occur

There are psychological triggers that you will almost certainly encounter in your daily life. Here are some specific situations in which cravings are most likely to occur:

  • When you're experiencing physical sensations you associate with your addictive substance or activity (fatigue, shakiness, etc.).
  • When you are exposed to whatever you're addicted to (alcohol, drugs, foods, etc.)
  • When you are feeling particular emotions you associate with the addictive substance or activity (depending upon your particular psychology, you may be most vulnerable when you're frustrated, tired, or stressed—or when you're happy, excited, or eager to share your success). 
  • When you are interacting with people, places, times of day, and situations associated with your addictive substance or activity (evenings, weekends, and time with old friends can be particularly difficult)
  • When you see others enjoying whatever you're addicted to

Research suggests that addictions cause changes in brain chemistry that make cravings more likely.

Tips for Managing Cravings

Everyone has a different response to cravings; if one of the following tips doesn't work for you, try another!

  • Exercise is one of the easiest ways of reducing cravings because it releases endorphins which make you feel better, and it changes your bodily sensations, making it easier to distract your attention away from physical cues to take more drugs or alcohol. However, start gently, particularly if you are also experiencing fatigue and/or muscle weakness, and avoid developing a substitute exercise addiction by keeping your daily exercise under two hours.​
  • If you're planning to be in a location or with people who trigger cravings, have a specific plan in mind for managing your feelings. Know what you'll eat or drink, know how you'll leave the situation, know who to call if you need support.
  • Keeping busy to distract yourself from the cravings can be helpful in focusing your attention away from the desire to take more of the drug.
  • Know your triggers. As you go through your day, take note of cravings—even mild ones—and keep a journal. This will help you to anticipate and plan for cravings as they arise.
  • Music therapy is helpful for reducing cravings; listening to music may distract you from the cravings and calm the physical symptoms of cravings, helping you feel better.
  • Positive self-talk can often help people through cravings. Yes, you're worth the pain of saying "no" to something that is likely to harm you in the long run.
  • "Surfing" through the craving. In some cases, distraction may not help and you may simply need to experience the ups and downs of cravings. In that case, it may help to recall the negatives of the addiction and the hard work you've already done to overcome it.
  • Talk about your cravings. For some people, talking about cravings is one way to enlist the support of friends, which can help you to move through and past the need to indulge.

If you have recently become abstinent, avoid triggering situations, or at least be prepared to experience cravings if you go into a triggering situation.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); Office of the Surgeon General (US). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health [Internet]. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services; 2016 Nov.

  2. Umhau JC. Conquering the craving: treatment to curb alcohol use disorder. J Christ Nurs. 2019;36(3):148-156. doi:10.1097/CNJ.0000000000000624

  3. Duailibi MS, Cordeiro Q, Brietzke E, et al. N-acetylcysteine in the treatment of craving in substance use disorders: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Addict. 2017;26(7):660-666. doi:10.1111/ajad.12620

  4. Ghiţă A, Teixidor L, Monras M, et al. Identifying Triggers of Alcohol Craving to Develop Effective Virtual Environments for Cue Exposure Therapy. Front Psychol. 2019;10:74.  doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00074

  5. How to Manage Cravings.

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.