Managing Cravings in Substance Abuse Disorders

Learn more about how to manage cravings in substance abuse recovery and how to get the help you need here.

Introduction to Substance Use Disorders

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a medical condition characterized by a pattern of harmful or problematic use of substances, including alcohol and drugs. Many people experience cravings in substance abuse recovery when they try to start the detoxification process.

SUD is a complex and chronic disorder. It can have severe physical, psychological, and social consequences. The condition is diagnosed when a person’s use of a substance leads to significant impairment or distress in their daily life.

Key features and characteristics of substance use disorder include:1
Cravings in Substance Abuse

Impaired Control

People with SUD often find it difficult to control their substance use. This leads to the consumption of larger amounts or over a more extended period than intended. 

They may express a persistent desire to cut down or control their use but struggle to do so.


People with SUD may experience intense cravings or urges to use the substance. These cravings can be challenging to resist. These cravings in substance abuse are often a key sign of dependence on a substance.


Over time, people may develop a tolerance to the substance. This means they need higher doses to achieve the desired effect. This tolerance can point to a substance use disorder as well.


The experience of withdrawal symptoms when the substance isn’t used or is used in reduced amounts may also indicate potential substance use disorder. 

These symptoms can be physically and emotionally distressing. They may even be dangerous, depending on the severity and length of use.

Negative Consequences

This is when people continue to use substances despite experiencing negative consequences. These consequences include:

  • Health problems
  • Relationship issues
  • Legal problems
  • Work or school difficulties

Neglecting Responsibilities

Many people with substance use disorder also neglect important social, occupational, or recreational activities in favor of substance use. This can increase over time.

Loss of Interest

A decrease in interest or participation in activities that were once enjoyed due to the preoccupation with substance use may also indicate dependence.

Failed Attempts to Quit

This is when a person experiences repeated unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use.

Social and Interpersonal Problems

Continued substance use may lead to conflicts with:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Colleagues

Risk-Taking Behavior

Engaging in risky behaviors while under the influence of the substance. can be a strong indicator of tolerance or dependence. Examples include driving while intoxicated or engaging in unsafe sexual practices.

Physical and Psychological Health Issues

Substance use can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems. These can include:

Importance of Getting Help

SUD can affect people of all backgrounds and ages. SUD is considered a chronic condition, but with the right treatment and support, people can:

  • Achieve and maintain recovery
  • Improve their quality of life
  • Reduce the negative impact of substance use on themselves and those around them

What Are Cravings in Substance Abuse?

Cravings in substance abuse and addiction are intense and overwhelming desires or urges to use a specific substance. These cravings can be a hallmark feature of addiction and play a significant role in influencing addictive behaviors.

Here’s a closer look at cravings and their impact on addiction:2

Neurobiological Basis

Cravings are deeply rooted in the brain’s reward system. When a person uses a substance that produces pleasurable effects, the brain releases neurotransmitters like dopamine. These reinforce the behavior by creating a sense of reward and pleasure.

Over time, the brain associates the substance with these positive feelings. Cravings then develop as a conditioned response.

Risky Events and Cues

Various factors can cause cravings. These can include:

  • Exposure to the substance
  • Environmental cues, such as seeing drug paraphernalia
  • Emotional states like stress, anxiety, and sadness
  • Social situations, such as being with friends who use the substance

These risk factors can create a strong desire to use the substance. This leads to strong cravings in substance abuse.

Psychological Distress

Cravings in substance abuse can be particularly intense during periods of psychological distress or emotional turmoil. People may turn to substances as a way to cope with negative emotions or to seek relief from withdrawal symptoms. This further reinforces the addictive cycle.

Compulsive Behavior

Cravings can lead to compulsive behaviors. This is when people feel a compelling need to get and use the substance, even when they’re aware of the negative consequences.

Risk of Relapse

Cravings in substance abuse are a significant risk factor for relapse. Relapse is the return to substance use after a period of abstinence or recovery. The intensity of cravings can be a key driver in relapse episodes.

Loss of Control

As cravings intensify, people may experience a loss of control over their substance use. This makes it difficult to resist the urge to use the substance.

Cycle of Addiction

Cravings can perpetuate the cycle of addiction. When someone succumbs to cravings and uses the substance, it temporarily reduces the desire and provides a sense of relief.

But, this relief is often short-lived, leading to a cycle of:

  • Repeated use
  • Cravings
  • Escalating substance abuse

Treatment and Coping Strategies

Addressing cravings in substance abuse is a critical component of addiction treatment. Behavioral therapies can help people develop coping strategies to manage and reduce cravings. These include treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based approaches.

It’s important to note that cravings in substance abuse are a normal and expected part of addiction recovery, but they can be managed with the right strategies and support. As people engage in treatment and maintain abstinence, cravings often become less frequent and less intense.

Are Cravings in Substance Abuse Different for Various Substances?

Cravings for different substances, such as alcohol, opioids, and nicotine, can be experienced differently by people with substance use disorders. The nature and intensity of cravings can vary widely depending on the substance and the person.

Here are some key points to consider:3

Substance-Specific Cravings

Cravings are often specific to the substance that a person has been using. For example, someone with an alcohol use disorder may experience intense cravings for alcohol, while a person addicted to opioids may primarily crave opioids.

The nature of these cravings can be influenced by the pharmacological effects of the substance on the brain.

Neurobiological Differences

Different substances affect the brain’s reward and pleasure centers in distinct ways. This is due to variations in their chemical properties.

For example, opioids directly bind to opioid receptors, while nicotine affects nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. These neurobiological differences can result in unique craving experiences for each substance.4

Duration and Intensity

The duration and intensity of cravings can vary among substances. Some substances, such as opioids, may lead to intense cravings that peak quickly. Others, like nicotine, can result in more frequent but less intense cravings over a longer duration.

Cue-Induced Cravings

Environmental cues and risks can play a significant role in cravings. For example, someone who associates smoking with their morning coffee may experience strong cravings in that specific context.

Similarly, people with alcohol use disorders may be enticed by the sight of a bar or the sound of clinking glasses.

Psychological and Emotional Factors

Psychological and emotional factors that can heighten the intensity of cravings for various substances include:

  • Individual psychological factors
  • Emotional states
  • Underlying mental health conditions
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Stress and boredom are two of the most common reasons that people end up relapsing during recovery.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Cravings can also be linked to the presence of withdrawal symptoms. When people experience withdrawal discomfort, such as nausea, sweating, or anxiety, they may have strong cravings for the substance to relieve those symptoms.

These withdrawal symptoms can be managed safely at drug rehab centers that offer medical supervision for participants.

Coping Strategies

People with SUD may develop different coping strategies to manage cravings based on their substance of choice.

For example, someone addicted to opioids may use opioid replacement therapy (e.g., methadone or buprenorphine). A person with a nicotine addiction may use nicotine replacement therapies (e.g., nicotine gum or patches) to reduce cravings.

Treatment Approaches

Effective treatment for SUD often involves tailored approaches to address substance-specific cravings. Behavioral therapies and support groups may be customized to target the specific substance.

While there are commonalities in how cravings manifest across different substances and people with SUD, the specific experience of craving can vary. Effective treatment plans should be tailored to address the unique needs of each person.

Cravings in Substance Abuse

What Strategies are Used in Treatment to Combat Cravings in Substance Abuse?

Addiction treatment programs employ a variety of techniques to help people manage and overcome cravings. These strategies aim to teach patients how to cope with cravings in substance abuse effectively and reduce the risk of relapse.

Here are some commonly used approaches:

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

CBT is a widely used therapeutic approach. It helps patients identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with substance use.

In the context of cravings in substance abuse recovery, CBT can teach people to:5
  • Recognize risks
  • Challenge irrational beliefs about substance use
  • Develop healthier coping strategies

Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness practices can help people become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judgment. This increased awareness can be valuable in managing cravings by allowing patients to observe their cravings without acting on them.

Relapse Prevention Skills

Relapse prevention programs teach skills to recognize and cope with high-risk situations and cravings. This may involve creating a detailed relapse prevention plan and developing strategies to avoid or navigate risk factors.

Motivational Interviewing (MI)

MI is a client-centered counseling approach that helps people explore and strengthen their motivation to change their substance use behaviors. MI can be particularly useful in addressing ambivalence about quitting and building internal motivation.

Stress Management Techniques

Stress is a common cause for cravings in substance abuse recovery. Learning stress management techniques, such as deep breathing exercises or yoga, can help people reduce stress.

Distraction and Engagement

Encouraging people to engage in alternative, enjoyable activities when cravings strike can redirect their focus away from the substance.

This can include:

  • Hobbies
  • Creative pursuits
  • Spending time with loved ones

Social Support

Building and maintaining a strong support network is crucial in addiction recovery. Supportive friends, family members, or participation in support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) can provide encouragement and guidance during challenging times.

Positive Self-Talk

Encouraging positive self-talk and self-affirmations can help boost self-esteem and resilience when facing cravings in substance abuse. Affirmations can be used to counter negative thoughts and reinforce a commitment to recovery.

Regular Therapy and Counseling

Ongoing therapy and counseling sessions with trained professionals can provide a supportive environment for people to discuss cravings and develop coping strategies.

Celebrate Milestones

Recognizing and celebrating milestones in recovery, such as days of sobriety or progress achieved in treatment, can reinforce a sense of accomplishment and motivation to continue the journey.

Holistic Approaches

Holistic therapies may complement traditional addiction treatment by promoting relaxation and emotional well-being.

This includes activities like:

  • Acupuncture
  • Sandplay therapy
  • Yoga

People in addiction treatment often work with healthcare professionals and therapists to develop a personalized plan that includes a combination of these strategies.

How Ethos Wellness Can Help People Work Through Cravings in Substance Abuse

It’s important for people to realize that cravings in substance abuse are a common sign of recovery during the detox and withdrawal periods. It also often occurs even after people have been substance-free for a while, which may be due to stress or other risk factors.

Ethos Wellness is here to help guide you or your loved one through the recovery process. We can support you throughout the healing journey by creating an individualized plan for your cravings in substance abuse to mitigate them and teach you how to navigate them effectively.

Get in Touch Today

Our caring and compassionate staff is here and committed to helping you every step of the way throughout your wellness journey. We employ both evidence-based and holistic approaches to comprehensively treat cravings in substance abuse recovery.

Reach out to Ethos Wellness today for supportive assistance during recovery. Our knowledgeable and compassionate team is here for you or your loved ones.

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Reach out to our Ethos Wellness team today for direction and guidance in your recovery journey. We’re here to provide you with the whole-person, personalized support you need for the sustainable wellness you deserve.