I deal with different aspects of cravings in both AE1 and AE2 and I thought it would be useful to put it all together in one place.
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 your thoughts wander. You may start off thinking about what you have to do that morning, which 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, friends 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 minds. 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 a whole new level, because now it is actually within our reach.
There is then the third stage of 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 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 is 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 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 from 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 torture 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 from 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 of 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 cravings. 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 a 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, which 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 helps 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?
Thank you for this
I need to find a way to o print this. And read it often.
You should be able to just highlight and copy it to a word doc, then print.
So true William thanks all good
I quit 14 months ago at the point it finally, finally sank in I would at best kill myself and at worst kill my family and others with my irresponsible behaviour. I’d been drinking heavily for 40 years. I’ve come to realise how invaluable continued abstinence is – the longer the gap between your last drink and your sober state, the more you understand, viscerally, that your body and mind needs time to unpick themselves from the triggers, the supposedly positive memories, and the lifestyle that drinking commanded.
I think about alcohol a lot. But as you say, William, I refuse to torture myself. I think about the contrast with my life now and my life then. I recognise that the sense of motivation and/or serenity I’d experience were false – the booze releasing large amounts of dopamine and serotonin from my brain which then had to be repaid later with dread and hopelessness as it wore off… or just stopped working no matter how much I topped up my glass.
The more time that passes, the more I develop a healthy sense of fear of the damage alcohol can wreak. I sleep wonderfully. I never stop marvelling at the pleasure of getting into bed knowing I’ll wake up rested, and remembering how I fell asleep.
I won’t go back to it. High functioning though I was, I still left a trail of destruction and hated myself every minute I was conscious. And I paid vast amounts for the privilege.
There’s no point regretting it all – that way madness lies. But I’m learning constructively from those decades and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.
Thanks for sharing your own thoughts and experiences. The sanity that comes through sobriety is astonishing, isn’t it?
That’s great to read well done. Yes I agree, the difference between the drinking and the non-drinking life is astounding.
I am your twin. I wrote a list of REASONS why I did not want to drink. All I do is think about those reasons and my desire is shut down. I am SO PROUD to have something that so many others can’t have. I HAVE DONE IT! I DID IT! It’s over now. I’m sure you feel the same. Bravo!
Great article, I love the alcohol explained books.
I am a mentor on Annie Grace’s November Alcohol Experiment. I have shared this, and pointed
them to you as the author of Alcohol Explained, hope that is OK?
Yes absolutely, the more coverage the better!
This is the first time I have quit with certainty instead of ‘I’ll see how I go’. I can’t believe how little cravings I have had in the first 7 days. Zero! Because I am not entertaining levels 2-4 at all .. and not really even level 1.
I quit because of you and Craig Beck! Found out about your book on his YouTube video. Thank you!!!!
William thank you this is the biggest game changer because i previously despite reading both books could not understand my automatic behaviour and self sabotage. I could not stop myself i felt as if my brain had been hijacked.
This is fantastic. I wish there was a way to force everyone in the group to read it. I think it is key to total abstinence!
so awesome William best article I have ever read on WHOLE topic of alcohol – just 1 comment I think using such terminology is not helpful as for many people who enjoy odd glass of wine this is simply not true…… ‘foul tasting poison’ !!
Brilliant article William and makes so much sense
It is enlightening, when we have all drank and yet never analysed how we got to the stage that lead us to raising that glass. Your experience William and then shared knowledge has helped me no end in understanding alcohol and the effects. Why we become addicted. Identifying that propensity that is within us all. It is a journey that starts with a taste possibly in youth that for some leads to the ignomy of the final episodes, drinking meths. The stages inbetween within the journey interrupted by financial ruin, heartattack, stroke and for many death. Short lives that were unfulfilled, nagged by self doubt and uncertainty.
From an institution that revolved around drink there are many at least a fifth of the people I know who are now dead. Now I can not sustainiate this with data or of how they met their end but I do know that they were heavy drinkers at sixteen years of age. To quantify heavy. Drunk every Friday and Saturday night. If I may add. When I was of that same age in the same place it was allowed. Skol and Double diamond being the chosen poison. At the time I considered it a waste of money and plus I would get a mass outbreak of spots. This stayed with me until my late twenties. So with that, exercise and competition was my gig.
So I give thanks to my life choices and blogs like William’s that help me remain sober. After all, the road is always open.
Wow, I have been searching for advice on cravings for months now, and finding this article that explains the mechanism of cravings with the clarity this one does was just the help I was looking for. This has helped me more than you can imagine. I can’t thank you enough for writing this!
I have read both books and they provide excellent information. So many times I’ve experienced what you describe in your books, such as the jittery feeling when the first drink wears off. I know a powerful part of your process is when the reader gets those aha moments and recognises the true effect of alcohol as opposed to the myths and misconceptions.
Regarding craving, I’ve gone through this cycle but what really strikes me is the overwhelming relief when I decide I will have a drink- even though this is not a good decision for me, my subconscious probably tags the decision to drink as a good thing, because it ends the mental torture of the will I, won’t I, the for and against. So its easier to give and and tell myself ill quit tomorrow…and then the same thing happens tomorrow. Then I find once I have a few days of abstinence under my belt, I dont even think about drinking! Unfortunately regardless of how long I go, up to 9 months on occasion, something always happens that gives me an excuse to drink again. I must re read your article on the power of the subconscious…you said that your subconscious decides to drink and your conscious mind finds a reason.
There was a recent blog that can be accessed through from the website Soberistas. This is a company based on membership for those who want to and are on a path of abstinence. What has been a point of consolidation for me has been the regular emails that I receive from them. Am uncertain if by signing up for the emails means an introduction to a tariff as I did have a membership that has now lapsed but get these nuggets for free. One of the most recent that came through on the 30/07/2021. To summarise, the statement was made to the question of being able to come back from yet another episode of drinking. We can all say that it takes more and more and is ever harder to say no. It was compounding realisation that anyone who drinks could reach this. That there there will be stage when there is no way back. Personal experience of a sad individual who would fall off and be gone for days at a time into the pit of alcohol. His rank availed him the means and the availability to drink then crash and then to continue the drinking binge. With only tired family trying to find him and recovering him back after to what was often several days of absence. This sad wretch’s face is etched into my memory of an unshaven spittle faced with vomit dried into his number one uniform. Moving further and further away from sobriety.
The point being, stop before you cannot.
Give the website a look.