A craving is a hugely misunderstood concept, people think of it as an outside occurrence, something that happens to them over which they have no control. It’s like being hit by a meteorite (only far more likely) in that it is something that just plummets out of the sky and hits us and there is nothing we can do to avoid it. But of course this isn’t the case at all, craving is an entirely internal process, and moreover one that happens entirely in our conscious (as opposed to subconscious) mind.
Human thoughts aren’t static, they tend to follow a path. You may be sat there alone, having your morning cup of coffee, just letting you thoughts wonder. You may start off thinking about what you have to do that morning, that may lead you to thinking about lunch and maybe meeting a friend, that friend may be going through a rough patch so you may then start thinking about what he or she is going through, and so on and so forth.
For the drinker who is trying to quit, it is almost certain that the thought of a drink will enter their head at some point. After all for the last however many years certain times of the day, events or occasions have been accompanied by a drink. How can they not think about it? Also we are surrounded by drinkers, drinks and drinking. When we speak to family, friend or colleagues, when we put on the tv or watch a sporting event, when we open a book or look at social media.
So the thought of alcohol inevitably enters the person’s mind. This in and of itself does not create a craving, there are in fact four separate stages in the thought process that happen directly after this where the craving really starts to kick in and bite.
The first stage is ‘fantasising’. This is where we start to fantasise about how it would feel to have a drink. We test it out in our mind. We sit back and imagine how it would feel to drink it, how all our worries would miraculously just disappear. In essence we start to torture ourselves. Like the dieter who sits there salivating over the thought of a pizza, we sit there and go into our minds and we imagine how very pleasurable it would be to have that drink. Forget alcohol advertising, who needs it? The drinker does all the advertising for the alcohol industry themselves. Imagine turning on the TV and seeing an advert showing someone drinking, taking a long slow mouthful of wine or beer or whatever, and seeing the look of bliss and contentment coming over their face. That is exactly the kind of thing that those who are opposed to alcohol advertising think should be banned. Yet this is what each individual drinker is broadcasting to themselves every single day the world over.
So this is the first part of the craving process, and it is very powerful. Advertisers want to get personal; they want their adverts to reach out to each individual and every person to feel like that advert is about them personally. One of the reasons this part of the process is so powerful is because it is our own personal advert. It’s like turning on the TV right now and seeing an advert showing you, right now, having a drink, and not only having it, but being able to project some warped, nonsensical fantasy making it out to be a hundred times better than it really is. Imagine the uproar if the alcohol industry developed a way of being able to do this, and to project the advert directly into your mind over and over again at random times throughout the entire day. Imagine the outcry, yet this is exactly what we do to ourselves. This is so powerful because it’s a form of self-imposed torture. We torture ourselves in our imagination. If you are really busy one day, either at work or at home, you may find you skip lunch, sometimes I even end up skipping breakfast and lunch. Because I’m busy, because I have my mind on other things, because I’m not thinking about eating, I can skip those meals fairly easily. But imagine if you weren’t busy, if all you had to do all day was think about food. Imagine if you were sat in your favourite restaurant all day, with all your favourite dishes laid out in front of you, and all you could do was look at them and smell them and think about how good it would be to tuck into them. That would be unbearable. That would be torture.
This first stage of craving, the fantasising is hugely powerful in and of itself, but the second stage in the process can make it even more torturous, and that is entertaining the possibility of having a drink. This is where we move from thinking fantasising about a drink on a purely academic level, in other words just tentatively imagining what it would be like to drink, to actually thinking about having one, about abandoning our attempt to quit and just drinking.
This actually makes the torture even more acute. Think about sitting in your favourite restaurant, with all your favourite dishes laid out in front of you. That would be painful enough, but what would be even more unbearable would be to pick up a large slice / spoonful / forkful of something, to raise it to your mouth, to open your mouth, to feel the smell of it fill your nostrils…
Entertaining the possibility of taking that drink takes the agony of desire to whole new level, because now it is actually within our reach.
There is then a third stage to the process which is actually to do with how decision making takes place in the human mind. There is a substantial amount of evidence that shows that many of our decisions are in fact made in the subconscious mind. Not all of them, and not all the time, but certainly some of them some of the time. What can sometimes happen while the above thought processes are going on, is that your subconscious just decides that you are going to drink.
In fact your subconscious is more likely to jump in and make a decision when you are distracted by other things. Have you ever had a power cut and found you keep walking into a dark room and hitting the light switch even though there’s no power? That’s the kind of thing I do all the time. But isn’t it the case that we’re far more likely to do something like that when you’ve got a million things on your mind? The kids are playing up, work is getting out of hand, you’ve got an assignment to hand in, your partner is being particularly irritating at the moment, your best friend is being weird, oh, and why the hell did I just flip the light switch when we have a power cut?
The fact of the matter is that that the conscious mind deals with what it can, and the subconscious picks up the rest. The human brain can only consciously think of a certain number of things at any one time and when it’s taken up with thinking about things the subconscious if far more likely to step in and start picking up the slack. When your mind is getting filled up with thoughts of drinking and wouldn’t it be just so perfect to have a drink now, how would that wine / beer taste, I can always just quit another day, etc etc then it’s not unusual for the subconscious to actually make a decision that you’re going to go ahead and drink.
As and when this does happen you will then enter a fourth stage of the craving process, what I call ‘the search for excuses’. At this point you’ve given in, you’re going to drink, that decision has been made by your subconscious and is done with. All that needs to happen now is for your conscious mind to catch up. When this happens, your thought process changes subtly form a weighing up of the pros and cons, to a quick sift of the data to find any old excuse to justify the decision to drink. Because you are literally on the verge of giving in the torture is at its most concentrated. You are not making a decision, you are seeking a justification. You will recognise this thought process when it happens because it is panicky, irrational, and in your heart of hearts you know full well you are going to drink.
So there are four stages:
- Considering the possibility of drinking
- Subconscious decision making
- The search for excuses.
With each stage, the feeling of panic and the feeling of tortue intensifies.
You may not go through all of these. You may start to fantasise and then you may get distracted by work or kids or anything else and be able to abandon the entire craving process. Alternatively you may fantasise and then remind yourself forcefully of all the reasons you quit in the first place, or consciously see the reality of having a drink instead of this idealised fantasy, and again manage to stop the whole process. Either way, it is worth being aware of the entire process because it demonstrates that it isn’t something that just hits us that we are powerless against, it is a conscious thought process and, moreover, one that presents numerous opportunities to disrupt and defeat it.
Whether you are fantasising about having something that you are denying yourself, agonising over whether to give in and drink, or frantically searching for excuses to do something you know you are far better off not doing, it isn’t a pleasant process. Not only is it decidedly unpleasant in and of itself, but it stops you concentrating on anything else you might be doing. Sitting down after a day’s work would ordinarily be a pleasant experience. But if you start craving a drink, you are no longer enjoying it. You are no longer enjoying the moment, appreciating the peace and quiet, enjoying your evening, your attention is being entirely taken up with an unpleasant internal process, an argument with yourself.
The same is true of any situation, you may be at work trying to concentrate, with friends trying to relax, with your kids trying to enjoy some family time, with your partner, sitting down at the end of a hard day, having a nice meal. Whatever it might be you are no longer enjoying the situation you’re in, in fact you may as well be sat in a prison cell for all the attention you’re paying to what is going on around you, because all your attention is focused inwards, thinking about how sweet it would be to drink.
So it’s an unpleasant and distracting process, and in fact the quickest and easiest way of ending it is to just drink and have done with it. Win, lose or draw (and we know it’s always lose) once that drink is poured and you’re guzzling away, the entire craving process ends. After all you don’t fantasise about something and agonise over whether to have it or not when you’re in the process of consuming it. As soon as you’re drinking you can get back to enjoying that time with your partner, friends, that meal, etc. At this stage the drink is a placebo, but a very powerful one, and it can mean the difference between engaging with and enjoying life, and just suffering it. So for this aspect at least, it is purely psychological.
When we understand this craving process in a bit more detail we can also understand how it is possible for drinkers to abstain for some extended periods or even quit totally with relative ease.
A fairly typical example are drinkers who fall pregnant and stop immediately. The reason that they are able to do this without going to pieces is that their circumstances may mean they do not go into a craving cycle. If that person is absolutely certain that they won’t drink for the duration for their pregnancy they are far less likely to start fantasising about having a drink, and even if they do, they never entertain the possibility of actually having a smoke because it simply isn’t an option.
So they may on occasion sit and think about how nice it would be to have a drink, they may very much look forward to having one as soon as the pregnancy is over, but they never refine and concentrate the torture by entertaining the possibility of drinking because that is simply not going to happen. Equally the subconscious is not going to unilaterally make the decision to drink because that option isn’t even on the table. It is the certainty that is key here, it makes stages 2, 3 and 4 of the craving process impossible, and if often very much decreases the chance of stage 1 initialising. After all, a lot of people won’t even fantasise about drinking if it isn’t an option. This is why certainty can be key to quitting. It can actually prevent craving. But it also shows that just because you can do without something quite easily when abstinence is forced on you doesn’t mean you aren’t addicted to it.
This is also why, for me, avoiding triggers isn’t an effective strategy in quitting drinking. As mentioned previously, drinks, drinkers and drinking is everywhere, I cannot imagine how anyone can exist in this society without constantly coming up against the thought of alcohol. But the thought of alcohol isn’t the problem, it’s what you do with that thought that is the issue. If that thought immediately turns into some nonsensical fantasy about this magical elixir and how absolutely perfect your life will be if you can have a drink then you will be craving. If that thought leads to as sensible and pragmatic assessment of what you’re up against then there will be no craving. I think about alcohol probably 80% of any given day, yet I never crave it. Firstly of course is the obvious point that I know I will never drink it, so I don’t entertain the possibility of drinking, but more importantly I am now totally conditioned to see it as it really is, I never fantasise about it anymore. In fact it’s fairly straightforward as far as I’m concerned.
Alcohol is a carcinogenic, foul tasting poison. It’s a drug that makes you feel slightly dulled and confused and unable to properly focus, that then wears off leaving a corresponding feeling of anxiety. It is a drug that we happen to get into our bloodstream by drinking it, as opposed to injecting, snorting or smoking it. It increases your heart rate, leaving you feeling heavy and lethargic, lacking in energy and weak. Because it tastes so foul we have to drink it in concoctions that also contain lots of sugar which help mask its flavour, but it also creates a false hunger meaning you end up eating more. For both of these reasons it makes you put on weight. It ruins your sleep, so even one or two leave with that horrible mix of feeling tired but also nervous and uptight at the same time.
And all of this? This is just what the so the called ‘normal drinker’ experiences of it; those happy individuals that supposedly get all the good and none of the bad of drinking. This doesn’t even factor in the hangovers, the financial problems, the relationship problems and the health problems.
Why on earth would I fantasise about that?