Changing your relationship with substances or any compulsive behavior pattern takes time and practice.
When you first start to reduce or abstain from the behavior you are trying the change, you will likely have lots of “craving” to return to it. These moments of craving will happen when you are triggered by external (places, people, situations) and internal (certain mood or feeling states) cues that are associated with the behavior you are trying to change.
These cravings are completely normal and should be expected (and planned for!). For the most part, cravings states die out as you get farther and farther away from the old behavior and fill your life with new behaviors and ways of coping. They can however happen even after long periods of successful change and after they have seemed to die down all together. These moments can happen when you are faced with the “perfect storm” of triggers.
As we come into the holiday season, most people find that they face a lot of “perfect storms” and that behavior change is quite difficult to manage given the demands of family, work and holiday events. Below is a list of 17 skills that can help you navigate periods of time where you find yourself craving the exact behavior/or substance you are trying to reduce or stop completely.
As you work on using these skills, it’s important to remember that the behavior you are trying to change has been your “go to” for a long time. As a result, it will take a while before any of these skills work consistently and feel comfortable. Just as you learned over time to rely on a substance or a behavior to cope, these skills take practice and time to learn. If they don’t work right away, don’t feel discouraged. Keep trying!
At the times you find yourself cravings or contemplating a return to an old behavior, try using one of these skills:
- Exercise for 20 minutes (e.g., take a spin class, jump rope, do kickboxing).
- Relax for 20 minutes (practice progressive muscle relaxation, visualize a beautiful and calming scene, stretch, walk mindfully).
- STAY IN THE PRESENT! Don’t get lost ruminating about the past or fearing what will happen in the future.
- Keep your mind occupied with thoughts other than your anxiety-provoking or cravings-inducing thoughts. For example, in your mind count silently to 30 and then start again, over and over, until your anxiety or cravings subside. Alternatively, keep singing a song in your mind nonstop, until the anxiety goes down. Or count backwards from 100 by 7’s.
- Let go of distressing thoughts by practicing “letting go of your thoughts” skill (e.g., focus on the movement of balloons going up in the sky, or of leaves going down the river, or of clouds moving across the sky).
- Practice slow, deep breathing (breathing with your belly, not your chest) for as long as you need, until your anxiety goes down… It works!
- Imagine yourself in a quiet, beautiful place – your safe place. Make it soothing and enjoyable. Things in this place are exactly the way you want them to be. Visualize everything in its smallest details. Think about what you would like to be doing in your place. Describe it to yourself in your mind (e.g., “I’m walking on the beautiful, white sand of an empty beach. The ocean is so calm… The sun is setting and it reflects beautifully on the water. I feel very peaceful as I smell the salty ocean and feel the warm breeze against my skin…”).
- Observe and describe your environment (people, objects, sounds, smells and so on) in great detail using your 5 senses. Keep doing it for as long as needed, until your anxiety or cravings go down.
- Use coping thoughts (e.g., “This is just a painful feeling. It won’t last forever.” Or “I have survived this kind of situation before.” ).
- Dig your heels on the floor, literally. Notice the tension centered on your heels. Focus on the physical sensations in your feet and legs. Then clench and release your fists many times. Again, be aware of your physical sensations.
- Become aware of judgments about yourself (e.g., “What’s wrong with me?” or “I’m such a loser!”) and of distorted thinking (e.g., “I always mess things up!”). Let go of them using “letting go of your thoughts” skill described above.
- Focus your attention on whatever is touching your skin. Try to sense your feet in your shoes, your clothes touching your body, your back touching the chair, your hands touching whatever they are touching. Pay attention to texture and temperature. Describe it to yourself.
- Say a mantra or a self-affirmation over and over (e.g., “May I be peaceful and free from suffering”).
- Accept that you are having a craving or a painful emotion. Learn to “ride the wave” of your emotions or urges.
- Describe and label your thoughts. Now I am having a “I am freaking out” thought; now I am having a fearful thought of “This feeling will never pass”; now I am having a judgmental thought of “I am such a loser!” Remind yourself they are just thoughts, not reality – which will make them lose some of their power.
- Use some distracting skill (e.g., call a friend, sing a song, go for a walk).
- Use a self-soothing skill (e.g., take a long shower, light a candle, listen to music you enjoy).
There may be times where you need to try a couple of skills before you find yourself able to cope with a craving state. Keep at it! With practice the cravings will go down and these skills will become comfortable coping strategies that help you change your life.
Dr. Fonseca is a multilingual psychologist with a specialty in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, having experience in both group and individual modalities. She has worked extensively with adults and couples struggling with substance use issues.