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How to Banish Unwelcome Thoughts and Cravings

For those of you who think there’s nothing that can be done to rid yourselves of unwelcome thoughts and cravings – take heart. With a few simple tips and techniques – and a bit of practice – you can banish those devilish and determined invites to trouble each and every time.

1. Recognize it for what it is. – Before you can act to get rid of an unwelcome thought, desire or craving – to pick up a drink, to use, to gamble, or engage in any addictive behavior which has plagued you in the past – you need to recognize what’s happening. Acknowledge that what you are experiencing is a craving or desire to resume your additive behavior. Actually voice that acknowledgement, as in: “I know that what I am thinking is just a craving, a desire to go back to my addiction.” By voicing your recognition of the thought or craving, you are deflating its power. In essence, you are stopping it in its tracks, removing the forward momentum that, if left unchecked, could propel you into giving in. Once you recognize the thought/craving, you are ready to move on to the next step.

2. Employ distraction. – Thoughts that tempt you to use or engage in addictive behavior (such as the urge to join your friends at the bar, where you know you’ll get into trouble), are generally short-lived. Their purpose is solely to get you to succumb to the sometimes overpowering desire to resort to your previous comfort zone – using. A technique that is very effective is simply to use distraction to get your mind off of the craving. Don’t worry that you won’t be able to fight it off forever. Right now, you’re only interested in this moment, today. What kind of distraction should you employ? The answer is anything that works for you. It could be that you pick up the pile of bills and start prioritizing them. You could work on a Sudoku or crossword puzzle to challenge your mind. If your mind is occupied in thinking about something else, working out mathematics, trying to calculate dimensions in a home remodeling project, for example, it can’t be filled up with cravings. There’s no room for it – at least for now. Some individuals in recovery have reported great success in counting, or reciting the alphabet forwards and backwards, or trying to memorize or recall passages of verse. After 15 or 20 minutes, the unwelcome thought or craving has usually dissipated.

3. Talk with a friend. – A trusted friend can be one of your best defenses in the fight against unwelcome thoughts and cravings. The friend should be one that you’ve known for a long time, one who is very familiar with what’s gone on in your life, including your recent treatment for addiction. But, and this is important, it may very well be a friend that you’ve met who doesn’t know about your past. If you share a meaningful friendship that’s based on your new goals in recovery, a mutual interest in recreation or hobby or intellectual pursuit, by all means contact the person. Getting together in person is better than just chatting on the phone. There’s something about making the plans to get together and actually doing it that is very uplifting. You anticipate the meeting and your thoughts go in an entirely new direction. The cravings are replaced with a concrete plan of action. By getting out of the current physical location and meeting with your friend, you are engaging your mind and body in a constructive activity.

4. Call your sponsor. Go to a meeting. - That’s what 12-step sponsors and allies in the self-help group meetings are all about. They’ve been through exactly what you are experiencing and likely have many helpful strategies that you can adapt and use for yourself. Many times cravings seek to take over at oddball times. They’re not on a schedule and, therefore, pop up at the most inopportune moment – like when you’re trying to get to sleep, or early in the morning. You can’t just go see your trusted friend at this hour. Maybe there isn’t a meeting at this time of day or night. But you do have your list of people to call, those who have repeatedly assured you to give them a call no matter what time of day it is. They’ve said this for a reason: they want to offer you the support and encouragement you need. Go ahead and call your sponsor or 12-step buddy (someone you’ve become close to in the meetings or with whom you share similar background). Get through the craving by talking it out with them. When the hour is right, get yourself to a meeting. You’ll be amazed at how effective both of these strategies are at reducing and eliminating unwelcome thoughts and cravings.

5. Get physical. – When you find yourself caught up in negative thoughts and cravings, it’s time to do something physical. This could be a physical workout at the gym or your home using weights, elliptical machines, treadmills, exercise bikes, stretching bands and stability balls, or it could be simply taking a brisk walk or hike in the neighborhood, nearby community park or recreation area. Join a sports team in your community and play basketball, soccer, floor hockey or another competitive sport. Find a buddy and take up racquetball or tennis. Go swimming – again, this can be at home (if you have a pool and the weather permits), or at the beach or indoor athletic area.

Why is getting physical exercise so important? For one, physical exercise – vigorous exercise – produces endorphins in the brain. These are the body’s natural feel-good chemicals that do exactly that – they make you feel good. Physical exercise gives you a kind of jump-start, not only to your metabolism, but also your spirits. For another, physical exercise helps tone your muscles, trim away excess inches and pounds, beefs up your cardiovascular system and helps all your organs function better. While it’s a good practice to do some form of vigorous physical exercise every day, start slowly and build up your stamina.
Maybe begin with stretching exercises and a short walk of an easy pace for about 15 to 20 minutes. Do this 3 to 4 times a week. Then, increase the time and pace of the walk to 30 to 45 minutes and a moderate pace – and still do it 3 to 4 times a week. It should get easier the more you do it. After another week or two of this pace, step it up some more so that you’re at maximum (brisk) pace and walking or hiking for at least one hour – and do this 5 times a week. The beauty of using walking or hiking as physical exercise is that you can do it anywhere – in the parking lot, the mall, the park, neighborhood, beach, etc. - and you don’t need any fancy equipment, just a good pair of walking/hiking shoes.

6. Work with your counselor. – Maybe there’s some reason why you seem to be stuck with these thoughts and cravings that you haven’t yet worked on. Even though you’re finished with treatment and are in recovery, that doesn’t mean that you can’t avail yourself of continuing aftercare counseling – especially if this is part of your overall treatment program. Many residential addiction treatment programs have comprehensive aftercare counseling and follow-ups as part of the package. But if your program doesn’t include this, there’s still help available. Ask your 12-step sponsor for recommendations, or look up low- or no-cost assistance that may be available in your community. Let’s face it. You’re probably not a psychiatrist or professional addiction treatment specialist. So you can’t be expected to know everything that could be going on in your sometimes jumbled thoughts. Even if you are a psychiatrist or treatment professional, if you’re in recovery, you’re not your own best counselor. You need unbiased advice from an outside professional.

What you’ll work on with your counselor may be how to overcome some of the mind blocks that cause these cravings to keep cropping up. Some persons in recovery report that they’ve gone for weeks, even months, without cravings only to have them suddenly occur. Finding the reason behind this resurgence of cravings you thought long gone is important to getting rid of them for good.

7. Recurrence of cravings is not a failure. – Just because you experience cravings, it’s not a reflection of failure. It doesn’t mean you are bad or worthless or don’t have a backbone. It only means that addiction to a particular substance or behavior has been very powerful. It may be more deep-rooted than you recognized, or you may have thought that now that you’ve completed treatment, all cravings and negative thoughts would be gone for good. It doesn’t work out that way. As stated earlier, some thoughts and cravings occur months or years after treatment, and well into what would be considered a successful recovery. Take comfort in the knowledge that having cravings is perfectly normal. The sign of how successful your recovery is, however, is what you do about those cravings when they occur. Having an arsenal of helpful strategies is often the best way to deal with them. Just remember that you are not a failure, and your recovery is not in jeopardy simply because you experience cravings.

8. Check your nutritional intake and sleep routine. – We often neglect to take into consideration our nutritional needs and how much sleep is necessary for optimum health. When you first come out of treatment, your physical condition may not yet be back up to par. You may find it difficult to sleep through the night, or have nightmares, all of which contributes to a feeling of unsettledness, being out of sorts the next morning. After a few or longer nights of this, you’re already set up to be more vulnerable to unwelcome thoughts and cravings. In addition, what you consume in the way of meals is also important to your overall health and well being. You need a balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables – the fresher and more organic, the better – lean meats (avoid fatty, high-marbled meats), fish and poultry. Avoid the whites – no white bread, white rice – and high-carbohydrate foods. Steer clear of too much fatty desserts, with all their empty calories. Watch your salt intake as well. Too much salt increases your blood pressure, which increases fluid retention and can contribute to a feeling of malaise – a perfect breeding ground for unwelcome thoughts and cravings. If you’re feeling out of sorts, the tendency for cravings to overpower your determination to stay clean and sober magnifies. Do yourself a favor and get your nutrition and sleep routine into balance.

9. Stimulate your mind. – Life isn’t only about existence – or it shouldn’t be. What better way to enrich your existence than to encourage your mind with creative or stimulating activities? You could start off reading books that you’ve always wanted to get into but somehow never found the time. If you don’t have a list of titles that interest you, check out the New York Times Bestseller list and find one or two that you like. Go to the library or bookstore and browse through them to see if they are intriguing. You don’t have to buy the books, either. Libraries lend out books, often for free or only for a nominal membership fee if you live in the neighborhood. You can also sit in the library and read through the books, periodicals and magazines for free. This is another good way to stimulate your mind and do something that gets your mind off your cravings – and it’s free.
Another way to stimulate your mind is to be creative in an artistic endeavor. This could be oil painting, charcoal or watercolors. Maybe it’s jewelry making or cabinetry or gardening or cooking. The act of being creative utilizes the part of your mind that requires imagination, dreaming, conceptualizing the abstract and making it into reality. Creativity helps banish unwelcome thoughts and cravings. Go ahead and give it a try.

10. Meditate. – Sometimes emptying your thoughts and disciplining yourself to concentrate on your breathing – also known as meditation – is the best way to eliminate persistent thoughts and cravings. The practice of meditation isn’t all that difficult. You can buy books, CDs and DVDs on the subject, or obtain instruction from a certified meditation practitioner. Simply put, you get into a comfortable sitting position on the floor, close your eyes, empty your thoughts, and breathe in and out deeply while concentrating solely on the sound of your breathing. The rhythmic and repetitive nature of the breathing helps you to soothe your troubled nerves and calm negative thoughts, emotions and cravings. Do 5 to 10 minutes of meditation once or twice a day and you’ll find your mind clear of the intrusions of unwelcome thoughts and cravings.
Are there other techniques and tips to help ward off cravings and unwelcome thoughts? Some individuals in recovery – along with thousands in the general population – swear by the various forms of yoga. Like meditation, you can buy books, CDs and DVDs on the subject, or get instruction from a certified yoga professional. There are many different kinds of yoga, so investigate to see which one appeals most to you – or start with the basic form and progress from there.

In addition, there is acupuncture and acupressure, and hypnosis – methods that may work for some, but not for others.
Whatever techniques and strategies you employ to banish unwelcome thoughts and cravings, keep this in mind: be proactive and diligent and strive toward the achievement of your goals. When you are looking forward and are actively involved in the pursuit of your dreams, you won’t find yourself mired in the maelstrom of negativity that plagued you in the past during your addiction. Be positive, be active, be involved – and be happy in your recovery.

Posted on March 31st, 2010

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