Craving: When the Brain Remembers Drug Use
What are cravings and how should one cope?
Posted February 21, 2010 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
In my studies of addiction, the concept of cravings comes up often. Researchers talk of "wanting" versus "liking" of drugs and of the idea that cravings are a programmed response to environmental signals that have been connected to drug use through experience.
What are drug-use cravings?
I agree with these descriptions and the idea that cravings are strong memories that are linked to the effect of drugs on the brain's neurochemistry. Indeed, imaging studies have shown some intense brain activation when pictures that are linked to drug use (like a pipe, or a white powdery substance resembling cocaine) are shown to addicts.
The immense neurotransmitter release that is often brought on by the ingestion of drugs is responsible both for the experience and the lasting effects on learning. When it comes down to it, memories are really the brain re-experiencing an event, so it makes sense that reliving a drug, sex, or other past-compulsive experience would cause a serious emotional reaction. When one remembers, cortical areas associated with the sights, sounds, smells, and thoughts related to the event are activated in a manner very similar to the initial experience.
Still, aside from all the research, I know very well what cravings feel like.
I know the intoxication you feel the moment that memory hits you and your entire body tingles with anticipation. It's as if your whole being is crying out saying, "This is what we've been waiting for. Give it to me!" I never know to expect it, but when they hit, there's no questioning—I know that a craving has just taken over me. It's no wonder that people go out over these things, especially early on in recovery.
How to deal with cravings
I'm now at the point where no matter how strong the craving, I'm not about to throw everything I've worked for out the window for another hit. But still, it's just so tempting.
When you have a craving, recognize it for what it is. You might as well enjoy the rush, it's like a freebie you don't get to control. By being scared of the feeling, you induce more anxiety and shame that may lead you to act out. Instead, recognize your lack of control over the craving, let the experience happen, and go on with your life.
If the experience is overwhelming, make sure there's someone you can talk to about it (a therapist, partner, parent, or 12-step sponsor). As time passes, your cravings will become less and less frequent, though without specific treatment, their intensity will likely not go away. Cravings are a part os the reality of addiction—knowing what to do with them is a key to success.
© 2010 Adi Jaffe. All rights reserved.