Early Recovery: Understanding and Managing Temptation

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If there is one thing about addiction recovery that is often misunderstood, it’s drug cravings. Episodes of drug craving or temptation are often reported in the weeks and months following recovery. They can even pop up years later, which is why someone who has been sober for decades will go back to using. Some say that this temptation is the true curse of addiction, and if it didn’t exist, people would be much more likely to stay off drugs.

Key Points to Remember About Temptation

The reality is that temptation does exist and will always exist in some form in our lives. Our thinking should instead be shifted to understanding and managing temptation since it can’t be erased from the recovery process. Below are some points to keep in mind.

  • Experiencing temptation at any time after treatment does not mean that something is wrong with you. Most importantly, it does not mean that you want to continue using drugs.
  • There are a variety of stimuli that have been paired with drug abuse. They act as conditioned cues for the craving. The most common triggers include being around people who use or once used drugs, having money, social situations and drinking alcohol.
  • In addition to the above stimuli, it can also be intense states of emotion (anxiety, sadness, depression) that act as conditioned cues.
  • The best way to manage temptation is by recognizing the cues early on. This is how you work through it and tolerate the symptoms.

What Does a Drug Craving Feel Like?

For friends and family who have never struggled with addiction, it may be hard for them to understand what you’re going through. But, you are not alone. Below are some of the things that our own clients at The RS tell us about what temptation feels like for them. Remember, everyone experiences it differently.

  • Some people experience temptation in a somatic manner, such as having their heart race or getting a feeling in the pit of their stomach. Others can actually hear or smell the things associated with the drug use.
  • Other addicts experience temptation on a cognitive level. The need to use the drug enters their mind and they can’t stop thinking about it. They have to have it now. Or, it may feel like the drug is actually calling out to them.
  • Finally, some addicts experience temptation emotionally. Being nervous, anxious or bored act as triggers.

Working Through a Drug Craving

Not all recovering addicts may recognize that what they are feeling is indeed temptation. It’s not that they are trying to cover up what they are feeling but instead they are misinterpreting the signals. This can be dangerous because if the urge to use is not dealt with, the recovering addict may find themselves using and not sure how they got there. This is not a valid excuse, of course, but it does happen.

With this in mind, it’s important for you to acknowledge the cues that your own body is telling you. It could be hearing a particular song or driving past an old hangout that stirs something up. Or, it may be the feelings of anxiety or uncertainty that drives temptation. When you can identify the warning signs, you can work through the craving more effectively. One thing to keep in mind: most episodes last less than an hour providing that they are NOT followed by drug abuse.

What can you do to keep yourself focused on positive things during this time?

Distraction: Any type of positive distraction will be helpful, especially physical distractions. You may find that it’s helpful to create a list of the things you can do to pass the time. Go for a walk. Head to the library. See a movie with a friend. Go shopping at your favorite store. Meditate. Practice yoga. Go for a massage or acupuncture session.

Talk it Out: Friends and family are critical to a healthy recovery, so when you’re not feeling strong, turn to them for support. Talking with these people will reduce anxiety and vulnerability and help you work through your feelings. If you don’t have supportive people around you, turn to members in your support group or meet with a therapist. Sometimes, even well-intentioned family members may be too nervous to be strong and supportive. There are also a number of online forums and support groups that you may reach out to.

Self Talk: During temptation, you may feel like your brain is saying, “I need the drug now.” Or, “If I don’t get the drug now, I’ll die.” This sense of dire urgency is hard to ignore, but it is an automatic thought that really has no validity. Self talk is helpful in this instance. For example, will you really die if you don’t use the drug? This challenges the automatic thought. Then, find a way to normalize it, such as by saying, “Temptation is not fun, but it’s normal and plenty of people go through it.”