Learn / Managing Cravings: Essential Techniques for Long-Term Sobriety

Managing Cravings: Essential Techniques for Long-Term Sobriety

Kayla Gill
 May 24th, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Cravings are a common challenge for those starting their recovery journey. They play a large role in perpetuating your addiction in the first place, and are a major factor in relapse for many people who are trying to stay sober. 

Luckily, there’s plenty you can do to manage cravings and increase your chances of successful, long-term recovery.

We’ll explore why cravings occur, practical strategies for managing them, the role of professional support, and how you can use your social support network to empower yourself against these overwhelming urges. 

Understanding Cravings

Cravings come into the picture well before recovery. They play a major role in how addiction is formed. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction is “characterized by intense and, at times, uncontrollable drug craving,1 along with compulsive drug seeking and use that persist even in the face of devastating consequences.” 

Cravings are a conditioned response that results from how addiction rewires your brain. Using a substance for a prolonged period trains your brain to believe that having it is crucial to your survival—as important as eating or breathing. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines cravings2 as a primary symptom of addiction:

  • Craving is an overwhelming need or urge to use alcohol or drugs 
  • For people who use stimulants, the craving is as powerful as a primary life drive. 
  • It is as powerful as the need to breathe, eat, sleep, have sex, or drink water. 
  • The brain believes the person needs the drug to survive. 
  • The person can feel anxious and irritable without the substance. 

Cravings are a powerful drive that goes far beyond a simple desire to do something. One man in recovery, Tom Coderre, describes his experience of cravings3 this way:  

I no longer desired it…I needed it. It was an overwhelming obsession that was created in my mind. I could taste it; see it; visualize it. I could almost feel the euphoria. I would experience kind of pre-euphoria feelings about it. It was a very, very powerful feeling.

Cravings are a significant challenge for those trying to stay sober, especially in early recovery. They can lead to relapse if they aren’t managed properly. 


Both physiological and psychological factors trigger cravings. 

Physiological triggers include physical withdrawal symptoms like nausea, sweating, and anxiety, which can occur in the early stages of recovery. These symptoms can be intensely uncomfortable, and can make it hard to resist using substances to make them go away. This is why it’s so important to detox from drugs and alcohol in a medically supervised environment. 

Psychological triggers, on the other hand, are often related to the emotional or mental associations you have with certain substances. People, places, or situations can act as cues to use, as can stress, boredom, and loneliness. Psychological triggers are trickier to manage, as they’re often harder to identify and avoid.

Triggers are prompts that lead to a craving.

Stages of a Craving

Cravings consist of a series of stages:4 

  1. Trigger 
  2. Thought 
  3. Craving 
  4. Use

These happen in rapid succession, and the sooner you can interrupt the process, the easier it is to stop. Thankfully, there are techniques for doing just that. 

Mindfulness and Awareness Techniques

While cravings can feel overpowering at times, mindfulness is one effective tool for managing them. Practicing mindfulness grows your awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in the present moment, without judgment. By becoming more aware of a craving as it arises, you separate yourself from the automatic urge to act on it.

Several mindfulness techniques can help you manage cravings:  

  • Body scan meditation5 involves focusing your attention on different parts of your body, noticing any tension or discomfort arising from the craving.  
  • Breathwork techniques like deep, slow breathing calm the mental and physical irritation cravings often cause.  
  • Urge surfing means observing the craving like a wave—it rises and eventually passes without the need to fight it. 

By practicing these techniques regularly, you develop the ability to acknowledge cravings without getting swept away by them. This space between craving and action empowers you to make conscious choices that support your recovery.

Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Cravings don’t have to dictate your actions. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used in rehab. It works by teaching you to challenge negative thinking patterns and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Cognitive restructuring6 involves examining the distorted thoughts that fuel cravings. You can learn to identify and replace thoughts like “I can’t handle this without using” with more empowering beliefs like “This craving is temporary, and I have the skills to manage it.”

In addiction treatment, CBT teaches behavioral strategies for managing cravings. Identifying and avoiding triggers is a key part of this. If certain places or situations consistently trigger you, your therapist can help you develop a plan to avoid them or create healthier alternatives. When a craving hits, distraction techniques can also be highly effective. These are simple activities that take your mind off the craving and allow it to pass. That might look like going on a walk, making a cup of tea, or doing a puzzle. 

By combining cognitive restructuring with practical sobriety strategies, you build a toolkit to handle cravings with confidence and stay committed to your recovery goals.

Physical Activity as a Tool

Exercise isn’t just good for your body; it also strengthens your mind against cravings. Physical activity releases endorphins, your brain’s natural feel-good chemicals. These endorphins boost your mood, reduce stress, and diminish the intensity of cravings. Even a short bout of exercise, like a brisk walk or a jog, can have significant short-term effects on mood and craving management. One scientific review of the benefits of physical activity in addiction recovery7 found that multiple studies “documented a significant change in addiction-related outcomes (e.g., more days abstinent, reduced cravings) in response to exercise exposure,” and confirmed that “exercise can be a helpful aspect of addiction treatment.”

If you want to make exercise a regular part of your life in recovery, the type of activity you choose is less important than finding something you enjoy and can stick with. Try to get 30 minutes of exercise at least 4 days a week. Walking, swimming, cycling, dancing—anything that gets your body moving helps. Start slowly and gradually increase the intensity of your workouts as your fitness improves.

A few simple changes can help you make physical activity part of your daily life. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, park further away from the building, or find a workout buddy to help you stick to your plan. By making exercise a regular habit, you’ll empower yourself against cravings and improve your physical health in the process. 

Nutritional Approaches

What you eat also plays a significant role in managing cravings. Food choices impact your blood sugar, energy levels, and mood, all of which can affect cravings.  

Here’s how nutrition supports your recovery:

  • Blood sugar stability: Sugary foods and refined carbs cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, which can trigger cravings. Opt for complex carbs like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables that provide sustained energy to avoid these fluctuations.
  • Nutrient levels: Deficiencies in nutrients like magnesium, B vitamins, and protein can sometimes mimic cravings. Try to eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats to ensure your body gets the nutrients it needs.
  • Hydration: Dehydration can be misinterpreted by the body as hunger, leading to cravings. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated and avoid mistaking thirst for cravings.

There’s no single recovery diet—the key is to find a healthy relationship with food that works for you. Consider consulting a nutritionist who specializes in addiction recovery and can create a personalized plan to address your specific needs. Some rehabs offer nutrition counseling as part of their addiction treatment programming.

Social Support and Communication

Recovery is rarely a solo journey. Building a strong social support network can help you manage cravings and stay on track. Surround yourself with positive, supportive people who understand your struggles and encourage your progress. Here are some ways you can identify and connect with a community that supports your healing journey:

  • Support groups: Connecting with others in recovery is deeply important. Sharing experiences and learning from each other gives you a sense of belonging and helps you through challenges.
  • Friends and family: Communicate honestly with loved ones you trust. Let them know you’re in recovery and what kind of support you need. Having people you can confide in during tough moments can make a world of difference.
  • Communicating your needs: When a craving hits, don’t be afraid to reach out. Be open with your support system about your struggles and what they can do to help.  

Here are some ways to effectively communicate your needs:

  • “I’m having a strong craving right now. Can we go for a walk to take my mind off it?”
  • “I’m feeling overwhelmed. Can we talk about it?”
  • “I used to use alcohol to cope with stress, but I’m trying to find healthier ways. Can I talk some ideas through with you?”

By expressing your needs to your loved ones, you allow them to support you through this important journey.

Relapse Prevention Planning

Cravings are a normal part of recovery, and occasional slip-ups don’t define you. Having a relapse prevention plan in place can significantly reduce the risk of relapse and empower you to manage cravings effectively.

If you attend rehab, your treatment team should help you start planning for relapse prevention from the time you start your program. Here’s what that looks like:

  • Identifying your triggers: Learn to recognize the people, places, situations, and emotions that typically trigger cravings. Once you know your triggers, you can develop strategies to avoid them or cope with them in healthy ways.
  • Developing healthy coping strategies: Build your coping skills so you’re ready to manage cravings when they arise. This might include mindfulness exercises, relaxation or distraction techniques, or calling a sponsor.
  • Assessing high-risk situations: Plan how you’ll handle situations where you might be exposed to triggers or feel tempted to use. This could involve having an exit strategy, practicing assertive refusal skills, or letting a trusted friend know when you’ll be in a challenging environment.
  • Spotting early warning signs: Identify the warning signs that lead to a relapse, such as increased social isolation, neglecting self-care, or feeling difficult emotions. Having a plan to address these warning signs helps you intervene before things escalate.

Professional Help and Resources

While craving management techniques help, cravings sometimes feel downright overwhelming.  If you’re struggling to manage cravings on your own, or if they become intense and persistent, don’t hesitate to get professional help.

Addiction treatment specialists can help you prevent and manage challenges:

  • Creating individualized craving management strategies: A therapist can work with you to identify your triggers and develop tools to manage cravings effectively.
  • Addressing underlying issues: Cravings often stem from deeper emotional or psychological issues. Therapy is a safe way to explore these underlying factors and learn healthier ways to cope.
  • Providing ongoing support: Recovery is a journey, and cravings can arise at any stage. Therapy offers ongoing support and accountability, helping you work through challenges and stay committed to your long-term sobriety.

You can use these resources to find treatment providers:

  • Recovery.com’s independent, 3rd-party treatment finder tool helps you find programs that match your needs based on insurance coverage, location, specialization, and more.
  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7 information service for people seeking help for substance abuse. 
  • Health Info Lines by the National Institutes of Health include information services for alcohol abuse and alcoholism, drug abuse and addiction, mental health, and more.

It’s hard to reach out for help, especially when you really need it. But seeking guidance and support for what you’re going through is a powerful sign of self-awareness and strength. It’s proof of your commitment to your recovery, and to improving your life. 

If you’re struggling to stay sober and need professional support, search addiction treatment programs and reach out to a center directly today. 

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