Four Ways of Dealing with Urges and Cravings

dealing with urges and cravingsIf you’re in recovery or trying to change a habit that isn’t working for you, you need to find ways of dealing with urges and cravings. That is, you need to become more aware of the thought patterns and feelings that led to you giving in to your desire to engage your habit. Whether it’s shopping, gambling, sex, pornography, eating, or using alcohol or drugs, you’re probably pretty familiar with the desire to engage that habit before actually acting on it; that feeling is called an urge or craving.


Cravings are important because they act as precursors to engaging our problematic habit or behavior. Cravings say, “Hey, we need to gamble/smoke/drink/watch porn right now!” We stay stuck in our habits because we listen to that voice without thinking. If we’re to change our habit, we need to find different ways of interacting with the thoughts and feelings associated with our cravings in order to avoid automatically giving in.


At the University of California in Los Angeles, brain researches have developed a strategy to apply conscious attention to transform the automatic mind. It’s a helpful strategy for those in recovery and, I feel, for especially the partners of sex and pornography addicts as well.


Partners can struggle with urges to check their the recovering addict’s phone, credit card statements, and so on for evidence of acting out. It’s a completely understandable way of dealing with anxiety and fear, but it often does little to reassure. They, like their addicted partners, need to find healthier ways of dealing with these feelings.


Step One: Relabel

In the first step, you label the addictive urge or thought for what it is and not for a craving that you must act on.* In doing so, you’re recognizing that you’re having a thought about engaging the habit, which immediately gives up the necessity of acting out it. For instance:

  • “I’m having the thought that I want to go to the store and buy more gin.”
  • “I’m noticing that I’d really like to dive into that bag of chips.”
  • “I feel I need to open a private browser and watch some pornography.”


Relabeling your addictive craving means that it’s no longer a need but a dysfunctional thought. It takes effort to do this, though. More precisely, it requires conscious attention. Dr. Schwartz, the lead researcher on this project at UCLA, elaborates:

In Re-labeling, you bring into play the Impartial Spectator, a concept that Adam Smith used as a central feature of his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He defined the Impartial Spectator as the capacity to stand outside yourself and watch yourself in action.


Step Two: Reattribute

“In Re-Attribute, you learn to place the blame squarely on your brain. This is my brain sending me a false message,” Dr. Schwartz writes. In the first step, you’re differentiating an urgent need from a belief. You’re recognizing that you don’t need to act on your thought at all.


In step two, you’re being interested in where that thought is coming from: Circuits in your brain that were hard-wired to give you a kick of dopamine to help you feel better when important emotional needs went unsatisfied when you were a child. These circuits developed alongside the habit to help you survive during a painful, difficult time in your youth, but they’re not helping you out anymore.


So what does this step look like? Here are some examples:

  • “My brain is telling me I need to drink because I’ve learned to deal with the stress I’m feeling right now by drinking.”
  • “My mind wants to watch pornography right now. I wonder what I’m feeling that I want to do that?”
  • “Hey, old brain pathways, you’re back at it. Thanks for trying to help me with my anxiety, but I’m trying to learn other ways of dealing with this.”


Sounds a little hokey, right? Yeah, maybe. But the point is that finding a way that feels natural to you to do this will weaken that wiring in your brain and make you more able to resist your cravings when done consistently.


Step Three: Refocus

The key here, says Dr. Schwartz, is this: “It’s not how you feel that counts; it’s what you do.” Rather than engaging in the addictive activity or habit, find something else do to. 


Initially, it’s a good idea to identify a number of activities that you can do other than to give in to the urge. Anything healthy or creative, anything life-giving or enjoyable is a good choice. I often share with clients that it’s also a good strategy to find alternatives that are no more than a few seconds (e.g., say a quick prayer, meditate, or silently express gratitude) to lengthier and more involved activities like taking a walk, participating in a hobby, or spending time with loved ones.


It’s important that the activity is enjoyable. It has to be fun for you. Why? Because when we do something else that’s pleasurable, we get a kick of dopamine and create new circuitry in our brains. It’s not going to feel as good as engaging in the habit, probably, but making progress in kicking your habit will be its own reward too.


Step Four: Revalue

In the Revalue step, you’re reminding yourself why you’re doing this in the first place. Why are you making all of this effort to change your habit? If you’re struggling with an addiction, your life may be in tatters, and it won’t take much to remind yourself of what would happen should you continue to give in to your urges.


Here’s what this step really means. When we engage in our habit, we falsely attribute great value to that thing we’re seeking, whether it’s a behavior or substance. Your addiction has fooled your brain into thinking that this thing is the highest priority. In the fourth step, you’re being honest with yourself by saying that that habit really isn’t valuable after all. You’re assigning it its real value: nothing. 


Write this out if you need to. Journaling about this once a day, especially early in recovery, is a great way to remind yourself of what is really valuable: rebuilding relationships with loved ones, finding healthier ways of dealing with urges and cravings, and engineering an authentic life and legacy.


* Mate, G. (2008). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books.


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Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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