A Mindful Approach To Alcohol Cravings

  1. Traditional Ways of Coping with Alcohol Cravings
  2. A Mindful Approach
  3. Using Mindfulness with Cravings
  4. Video: Mindfulness and Craving
  5. Mindfulness Resources

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is an ability that requires training and effort. It is a commitment to seeing ourselves and the world in a different light. Typically we are inside our experience which yields the feeling of being at the mercy of our experience.
What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness allows us to get more perspective with regard to our experience. It is integral to various Eastern practices, like Buddhism, and is now widely used in Western psychology and medicine.

Mindfulness enables us to be the observer of our experiences. We practice going just a tiny bit outside of ourselves to see what is going on inside with more objectivity.

In this way we have a relationship to what is happening to us, thus cutting down on the possibility of reacting. Mindfulness teaches us to respond with consciousness. It creates and enhances an internal locus of control rather than external.

Traditional Ways of Coping with Alcohol Cravings

  • Medications

    One problem with using medications, such as Antabuse, is if a person intends to relapse, all they have to do is skip the pill. Other medications for mood disorders have been helpful in curbing the tendency to be impulsive when cravings arise. However, medications like tranquilizers, because of their fast acting and mood altering nature, can become a fix and lead to rapid dependency by the alcoholic.

  • Distractions

    Some turn to food, technology, shopping, and other behaviors that are distractions but can often become addictions in themselves.

  • Therapy

    Other traditional forms of therapy, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), focus on changing or reframing feelings. These can be extremely helpful as a first step toward changing behavior; the self-awareness developed through these practices may even serve as a precursor to developing mindful awareness.

  • 12-Step Programs

    12-Step programs rely pm a "group" of others as support to deal with cravings. When a craving arises, one might readily go to a meeting, which although is very beneficial in the short-run, can serve as another form of distraction from experiencing the feeling of craving.

A Mindful Approach

As the Buddha said, "There are many paths to the top of the mountain." The above approaches are valid and very helpful for some and should be regarded with respect. For those who wish to take the mindfulness approach, the reliance is more on self and training our minds than on outside methods.

We do of course rely on others to teach us this approach and we might join a meditation group that focuses on mindfulness, but ultimately the work is about going within.

When we see our thoughts as something that can be bridled and tamed we can look at a craving as a temporary condition that will pass. It can be our teacher and guide us toward what is truly troubling and we also learn that a craving does not need to be avoided, it needs to be understood.

Mindfulness Practice: Body Scan

To begin practicing mindfulness it is very helpful to do various meditative exercises.I recommend a guided body scan as a first step.

  • First lie down in a comfortable position.
  • Start at the feet and become aware of them.
    • Notice any physical sensations, such as temperature, pressure, itches, pulsating, pain, vibrations, blood flow, etc.
    • You might focus on relaxing all the muscles of the feet.
  • When this is complete, scan upwards into the lower leg, knee, thigh, hip, belly, and buttocks area and so on until you reach the top of the head.

This meditation is wonderful to do before bed and it begins the process of becoming aware of our body as part of self.

Mindfulness Practice: Sitting Meditation

When dealing with mind it is beneficial to assume a sitting position.

  • Close your eyes, or keep them open maintaining a relaxed gaze slightly downward.
  • Focus on the breath going in and out of your nose.
  • Now just watch the mind.
  • Name when thinking arises. Say to yourself "thinking" and then go back to the breath.
  • Each time the mind begins thinking, gently bring it back to the breath without judgment.

This type of meditation is much like a slalom skier. The center point is the meditative state and the veering to left or right is the thinking. Meditation is the veering as well as the center point of focus on the breath. It is so important to be gentle with self as any negative judgment will be self defeating. I like to use humor with myself as my mind goes down various bunny trails and then come back to the breath. With more practice judgment decreases and benefits increase.

Using Mindfulness with Cravings

Here is an example of using mindfulness to deal with a craving.

First a craving arises. The first thing to do is to acknowledge the craving with a thought statement such as, "I am having a craving." We look at the feeling with compassion and acceptance thus reducing the need to flight, distract, or deny. This stops the sense that a craving is something we have to fight.

The next thing to do is look at what is going on in our lives that may be causing us discomfort not related to the craving. Perhaps we are having trouble with someone on the job, or we are concerned about a family member, or we are in fear about some event coming up in the future. At this point we are able to acknowledge that the craving is actually a distraction from these other issues that need to be addressed. This is how the craving can act as our teacher.

When we understand what we are uncomfortable about we can directly address those issues with mindfulness and kindness toward self and others. When you are in the process in this way often the craving automatically disappears since we are looking at the more primary issues that need to be addressed.

There is always a point in sobriety where underlying issues need to be addressed. If you are a member of AA, the 4th step inventory is very helpful in pointing out these issues. If the issues are deep and difficult to understand, counseling may be helpful especially if unresolved issues lead to the arising of cravings which could result in relapse.

Video: Mindfulness and Craving

Here is a video of Dr. Rory Reid, a psychologist at UCLA, talking about using mindfulness with addiction patients:

Mindfulness Resources

There are many valuable resources for learning mindfulness. YouTube has many guided meditations such as Jon Kabat Zinn's body scan meditation. One of my favorite books is called "The Gates to Buddhist Practice" by Chagdud Rinpoche available at Tibetan Treasures online. It provides a very clear introduction to the Buddhist Philosophy. Be prepared to have a challenging time at first and just remember that it gets so much easier with regular practice.

Other Resources:

Start with very short periods and increase over time. Eventually mindfulness will become second nature in every moment of your life.

Until then....be well