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How Long Do Drug and Alcohol Cravings Last in Recovery

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

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All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Addiction is a chronic and progressive disease that must be treated by a professional recovery program. Beating a substance use disorder can be difficult, but attending a rehab program can provide you with the tools you need to be successful in sobriety. One of the main difficulties associated with recovery that a substance abuse treatment program can help you overcome is known as drug and alcohol cravings.

Experiencing cravings is a normal part of the recovery process. Cravings for drugs and alcohol can be intense and difficult to manage without any support, often causing people to relapse.

If you are in early recovery and have begun experiencing cravings, you may wonder how long they will last. How long cravings last vary from one person in recovery to another, but what’s most important is to learn how to deal with them healthily so you don’t relapse.

What are Alcohol and Drug Cravings?

Drug and alcohol cravings are best described as intense desires to use drugs or alcohol. Cravings can be so strong that it becomes difficult for you to think or focus on anything else but satisfying your urges. Cravings are the number one cause of relapse among people in early recovery.

Drug cravings are a symptom of a substance use disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) criteria.[1] The APA explains that while cravings can occur at any time, they are more likely to arise when you are in an environment that triggers memories of your substance abuse.

The reason that cravings are so difficult for you to withstand is due to how addictive substances work in the reward center of your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for reward, motivation, reinforcement, and repeating pleasurable activities. When you do something pleasurable, like eating, having sex, or exercising, dopamine is released in your brain.

Using drugs or drinking alcohol also activates the brain’s reward circuit, causing large amounts of dopamine to be released. As a result, your desire to continually engage in substance abuse will be reinforced. This is how cravings for alcohol and drugs develop.

Over time, your brain will create external cues or triggers that cause you to experience cravings for drugs and alcohol. These triggers can be people, places, or things that remind you of drugs or alcohol.

When you stop using drugs or alcohol after a period of dependency, you will experience cravings. Cravings occur because your body becomes accustomed to the presence of the substance, causing it to malfunction when the substance is removed.

How Long Do Cravings Last in Recovery?

The amount of time you experience cravings will depend on a variety of factors. If you have a substance use disorder, you can deal with cravings during your addiction, throughout the withdrawal process, and even after you have completed the withdrawal stage of recovery. Unfortunately, many people experience cravings for years after they get sober.

Because cravings can last well into recovery, professional treatment programs implement a relapse prevention plan into the treatment process. Relapse prevention teaches you how to identify your triggers and manage cravings without feeling the need to succumb to your desire to use drugs or alcohol. Also, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs offer medications that can help reduce, minimize, or eliminate cravings.[2]

What Triggers Drug and Alcohol Cravings?

Cravings are triggered by being exposed to people, places, or things that remind you of using drugs or alcohol. Sometimes, triggers can be as simple as walking down a certain street, passing a bar on the road, or smelling alcohol on someone’s breath.

Things that may trigger cravings and possibly threaten your sobriety are often found in everyday situations such as:

  • Being in a neighborhood where you once purchased drugs or alcohol
  • Seeing people sell drugs or alcohol
  • Being in a bar or in an environment where people are drinking
  • Being around people who drink or use drugs
  • Having one sip of alcohol
  • Smelling a drug or alcohol you used to use
  • Experiencing psychological stress
  • Having relationship or career problems
  • Experiencing chronic pain from a medical condition
  • Having a co-occurring psychiatric disorder that is unmanaged
  • Encountering objects associated with drug or alcohol use, like a pipe or a needle
  • Seeing drug or alcohol use in the media

How to Cope With Cravings in Recovery

The first step in coping with cravings is to be aware of your triggers. Knowing the situations, objects, and people who will trigger your desire to abuse substances is extremely important, as this can allow you to prepare yourself.

Once you know your specific triggers, you need to come up with healthy coping mechanisms that allow you to successfully manage cravings without picking up a substance. First, attending a drug and alcohol treatment program can provide you with the tools you need to manage cravings and prevent relapse.

Some of the healthy coping mechanisms you can use when you are dealing with cravings in recovery include:

  • Distract yourself by going for a walk, reading a book, playing a video game, or engaging in any activity that requires your focus
  • Call a sober support friend or your sponsor who can talk you through your cravings
  • Remove yourself from the people, places, or things that are triggering your cravings
  • Get to the root of your problem by examining the thoughts and emotions that led to the craving and work through them
  • Exercise to improve your mood and distract yourself from the craving
  • Use mindfulness techniques like meditation or yoga
  • Remember the events that led you to get sober in the first place instead of reminiscing on the good times you had before your addiction got bad

Finding Help for Drug and Alcohol Addiction

If you or a loved one suffer from drug addiction or alcoholism, it’s time to seek help. Substance use disorders can result in a myriad of consequences, from financial distress and social isolation to severe mental and physical health problems. The only way to prevent yourself from experiencing the outcomes of addiction is to attend a professional drug and alcohol rehab program.

Relapse prevention therapy and aftercare support are important parts of our treatment program at the Carolina Center for Recovery. We work individually with each patient to help them work through cravings in a way that works for them. Contact us today for more information on how to get started with your recovery.


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