By Maria Karekla, PhD, and Megan M. Kelly, PhD, coauthors of Cravings and Addictions
Cravings are a key aspect of addictive behaviors like overeating, smoking, drinking, and drug use. Learning how to manage cravings is an important skill to develop on your recovery journey. Many people believe some common myths about managing cravings. Understanding whether you are influenced by any of these beliefs about cravings and addictions can help you to move past old, unhelpful ways of managing cravings.
Myth #1: Giving in to the cravings decreases stress.
A common belief people hold about addictions is that giving in to cravings reduces stress. It’s true that for a very short moment, you may feel some relief (usually from any withdrawal symptoms that you may be experiencing) but giving in to cravings never actually solves the source of the stress. In fact, there is plenty of research to show that people who have problematic substance use experience significantly more stress than people who do not have problematic substance use. It can be of substantial benefit to focus on other strategies for managing stress—strategies that actually do provide some benefit to your ability to cope with it.
Myth #2: Managing cravings is all about willpower.
Many people believe that managing cravings is all about willpower, and if you can’t manage cravings well, you have to blame yourself and your lack of willpower. There is nothing wrong with finding it challenging to manage cravings—many of us will experience this at some point in our lives. This is not a reflection of your character. Rather than blaming your willpower, it might be good to look at what strategies you are using to manage your cravings and see if there are more helpful strategies to use than the ones you are using.
Myth #3: Having cravings means that we need what we are craving.
When you experience a craving, it sometimes feels like your body “needs” it. This is the addiction speaking, trying to tell you to keep using. Your mind may tell you that something terrible will happen if you don’t give in to your craving. You don’t actually need salty, sugary, or fatty foods. You don’t actually need cigarettes. You don’t need to drink or do drugs—quite the opposite! We don’t have to listen to everything our minds tell us.
Myth #4: We should be able to control our cravings.
Over the course of our lives, we have been taught that we should be able to control our cravings, just like we should be able to control our thoughts. But what happens when you try to control your cravings? The more you push them away, the stronger they can often be. Try not to think about a pink elephant. If you’re like most of us, that’s all you end up thinking about. Now think about not smoking, not eating chocolate, not drinking. Chances are that craving will only be stronger. That’s the problem with trying to control cravings—it just doesn’t work and often makes it worse.
Myth #5: We need to stop having cravings in order to move forward and change our lives.
Cravings are a natural part of living. We all experience them and it’s impossible to live a craving-free life. So the goal is not to get rid of cravings, but to learn how to live with them. Having a craving does not mean that you have to give into it. You can move forward and live the life you want even in the presence of cravings. It has been our experience that instead of running away from cravings, once we accept the presence of cravings in our lives, we can begin to make peace and stop struggling with them. We can then turn their attention toward what is important to us. We can recognize the choices we have and take actions to improve our quality of life.
We may not always have a choice as to whether or when a craving shows up, but we always have a choice on how to act when it shows up. The first step to learning new skills to better manage our cravings is to connect with three ground rules for success.
Ground Rules for Success in Managing Cravings
Rule #1: Be gentle with yourself on your learning journey. It usually takes numerous trials to find what best works for you. There are no “failed” attempts. Any attempts you make to manage cravings, even if they are not successful, are important learning experiences. It is easy to get stuck on language like, “I failed,” and not see the value of every attempt made to manage cravings better. Search for the new learning each time, especially learning related to craving triggers and what works or does not work. Use this knowledge along with our proposed new skills to manage the next craving that shows up. You may have heard of the saying, “Rome was not built in one day,” and for most of us, managing cravings and changing our behavior takes practice and many attempts.
Rule #2: It is okay to have mixed feelings about managing cravings. Feeling ambivalent about giving up an addiction is normal. Food, alcohol, drugs, or tobacco may have given you comfort for a long time, even if they have been destructive in your life. It is normal to both want to stop engaging in addictions, and also be anxious or sad about the changes that will be involved. Being ambivalent about giving up an addiction does not mean that you can’t do it. Being honest with yourself about how you feel—and allowing yourself to feel all that shows up without struggling with those thoughts and feeling—is important to moving forward.
Rule #3: The decision to learn how to manage cravings better and give up an addiction is yours to make. No one can force you to quit eating what you want to eat, drinking, using tobacco—you have to want to do it. Your motivation will inevitably fluctuate from day to day and even hour to hour—maybe even moment to moment! Our book is rich in skills that you can use to help you keep your motivation and commitment up, and keep what is important close to your heart. However, this is ultimately up to you. At each moment you will always have a choice about how you want to act when a craving shows up. What will you choose next?
Above is an edited extract from Cravings and Addictions: Free Yourself from the Struggle of Addictive Behavior with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, our new self-help book on managing cravings and addictive behaviors.
Maria Karekla, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, and associate professor at the University of Cyprus where she heads the ACThealthy Clinical Psychology and Behavioral Medicine laboratory. She is a peer-reviewed acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) therapy trainer, and presently serves as the president-elect of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) where she has been a fellow since 2019. She is also a fellow of the Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM). She was nominated in 2017 for the National Literary Awards in the children/adolescents category, and also for her illustrations for the book. She has received numerous national and international awards and grants for her research work. In 2018, she was nominated as Cyprus Woman of the Year in the academic/researcher category.
Megan M. Kelly, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, and associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She has been involved in addictions research for the past sixteen years, with a particular focus on the development of behavioral interventions for individuals with comorbid addictions and mental health disorders. She has received several VA- and NIH-funded awards to develop and evaluate new behavioral interventions and programs for individuals with co-occurring disorders using ACT principles. She has evaluated, treated, or supervised the treatment of over 2,000 people struggling with addictions.