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Learn / Alcohol Cravings in Recovery: How Long Do They Last?

Alcohol Cravings in Recovery: How Long Do They Last?

By 
Rajnandini Rathod
|
 July 27th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Hannah Friedman

Key Points

  • Alcohol cravings are normal in recovery. They may last for awhile after you get sober.
  • Professional treatment can help you manage cravings and stay on track for recovery.
  • Lifestyle changes like healthy activities, meditation, and nutrition can also help.

Craving alcohol is a normal part of addiction recovery. When you first quit drinking, your cravings might be especially intense. As you heal, you’ll learn how to recognize and control cravings. Still, the temptation might never completely disappear. Cravings might even be a lifelong challenge. But there are ways to cope with them and reduce your risk of relapse.

Understanding Alcohol Cravings

Alcohol cravings are physical and emotional urges to drink. You might feel a loss of control or an overwhelming desire to consume alcohol, even if you know it would have negative consequences. There are some clear neurochemical reasons you might experience cravings. 

Alcohol addiction changes your brain,1 most noticeably in the reward center. Once drinking becomes a habit, your brain gets used to the good feelings that come with alcohol. It can grow harder to feel good without drinking. So when you quit, you might still crave that sense of reward. 

Alcohol cravings can have physical and emotional symptoms.2 For instance, you could have vivid fantasies about alcohol. Physically, you might start sweating3 or feel on edge.

Several factors can trigger alcohol cravings. Some triggers are internal, like memories and emotions. For example, if you used to drink to cope with stress at work, you may start to crave alcohol whenever you have a looming deadline. 

People, places, and situations can also be triggers. You might walk by a restaurant that was your go-to happy hour spot and suddenly get the urge to drink. Triggers are unavoidable at times. But once you understand them, you can learn how to curb alcohol cravings.

Timeline: How Long Do Alcohol Cravings Last?

Detox and Withdrawal

When you stop drinking and go into acute alcohol withdrawal, your cravings will be at their most intense.4 Medical detox programs can help you manage these symptoms. In this phase of recovery, your body needs to readjust to functioning without alcohol.

Alcohol detox can be difficult and even dangerous, especially if you drank heavily for a long time. It’s crucial to get medical care when you first quit drinking. You might feel physical withdrawal symptoms,5 like restlessness, shakiness, sweating, and nausea, for the first couple of weeks after you quit drinking. Your care team will keep you safe as these symptoms subside. 

Treatment and Early Recovery

Cravings often last well beyond the initial detox. It’s important to remember that everyone’s timeline is unique. While these urges usually lessen over time, you may never learn how to stop alcohol cravings entirely. Some people also develop post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS),6 in which intense cravings can last up to 2 years. 

During initial treatment, you can develop coping skills to manage these urges. You’ll also learn to recognize triggers before they overwhelm you. While cravings are uncomfortable, they don’t have to result in relapse.

Manage Cravings in Ongoing Recovery

By the time you leave rehab, you’ll have plenty of practice responding to triggers. And over time, as you continue to stay sober, you’ll develop more confidence in your ability to manage cravings. While your urges may not disappear, you’ll get better at living with them. 

Coping Strategies for Alcohol Cravings

No matter how long your cravings last, there are many ways to cope with the urge to drink. Sometimes you can avoid triggering situations—but that’s not always possible. You can also learn how to navigate triggers without giving in to your cravings. In treatment, your care team might suggest several different strategies.

Choose Fulfilling Alternatives

No feeling lasts forever—even alcohol cravings come and go.7 Sometimes all you need to do is wait them out. During that time, you can distract yourself with an engaging alternative to drinking. You might go for a walk, listen to music, or try a new sober hobby. 

Meditate to Reduce Stress

Meditation and similar activities can reduce stress,8 helping you manage alcohol cravings. Studies show that mindfulness can even reduce the amount you drink.9 These activities promote self-acceptance and a sense of calm. When you accept that even intense cravings are temporary, waiting for them to pass might get a little easier.

Lean on Your Support System

Social support is a vital part of recovery10 from alcohol addiction. When you have cravings, you can ask loved ones for encouragement. You might also attend a support group or schedule an extra session with your therapist.

Professional Support and Treatment

Therapy and medication can play an important role throughout addiction recovery. A few types of treatment are especially helpful for alcohol addiction.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT),11 you’ll start by identifying the triggers and behaviors that contribute to your addiction. Then, your therapist will teach you specific techniques to use when cravings arise. 

Prescription Medications

Your treatment might include medications to help you stop craving alcohol.12 Prescriptions like acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone can decrease the urge to drink. This approach is especially helpful for people healing from long-term alcohol abuse.

Peer Support Groups

Support groups, like SMART Recovery or 12-Step groups, can help you connect with your peers. These programs offer fellowship, encouragement, and accountability as you move forward in recovery. 

Lifestyle Changes for Long-Term Sobriety

Positive lifestyle changes13 can set you up for long-term sobriety. It’s important to create a daily routine that includes both self-care and fun activities. Maybe you used to have a drink every day at 6. You can take your mind off those memories by filling the same time slot with a new activity. Focus on what you are doing, like having coffee with a friend, instead of what you’re not doing, like going to a bar.

Recovery is a chance to build a life you love, sustainably. You can fill your time with activities you find meaningful, and ones that have immediate positive effects:

  • Picking up a new hobby
  • Eating well
  • Exercising
  • Spending time with loved ones
  • Expressing yourself through art, music, or writing
  • Learning a new skill

As you continue to heal, these new habits can become part of your daily practice. And data shows that strong routines support addiction recovery.14 You can develop a schedule that includes activities you love, and then stick to it—even when you’re craving alcohol.

Relapse Prevention

There will probably be times when you can curb alcohol cravings and times when you feel like you can’t. When you can recognize the warning signs of relapse,15 you’ll be able to get help more quickly: 

  • Isolating yourself
  • Skipping meetings you usually attend
  • Reminiscing about drinking
  • Letting go of your routine
  • Spending time with people who encourage you to drink

When this happens, you can reach out to people you trust. For example, you might call your therapist or your original treatment program. Certain programs can also help you stay sober after treatment:

Managing alcohol cravings is a vital part of maintaining sobriety. Connect with an alcohol rehab to get the support you need to meet your recovery goals.


Frequently Asked Questions About Alcohol Cravings in Recovery

What are alcohol cravings and why do they occur?

Alcohol cravings are intense urges to consume alcohol, both physically and emotionally. These cravings are a result of the changes that occur in the brain’s reward center during alcohol addiction. When alcohol becomes a habit, the brain associates it with feelings of pleasure and reward. As a result, when you stop drinking, cravings can occur as your brain seeks that sense of reward.

How long do alcohol cravings last during recovery?

The duration of alcohol cravings varies for each individual. Initially, during acute alcohol withdrawal, they can be very intense. However, cravings may persist beyond the detox phase and throughout early recovery. Some people experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), where cravings can last for several months or longer. Everyone’s timeline is unique, and cravings usually lessen over time.

What are effective strategies for coping with alcohol cravings?

Coping with alcohol cravings requires a multi-faceted approach. Choosing fulfilling alternatives to drinking can help manage and reduce their intensity. These can include new hobbies or activities, practicing mindfulness meditation to reduce stress, leaning into your support network, attending support groups, seeking professional treatment, and making positive lifestyle changes. These strategies can empower you to navigate cravings and maintain long-term sobriety. Planning for relapse prevention can begin as soon as you enter recovery.


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