Dry January, Week 2: Getting Past Initial Cravings

Last week I dove into the social benefit of participating in Dry January. This week I’m explaining how a month without alcohol helps you get past initial cravings.


To understand how this works, you need to know a little about the reward centers in our brain.


You weren’t born craving alcohol. It was only after you had some that your brain took notice, perceived alcohol as a desirable substance, and reinforced drinking by releasing dopamine.


Over time, with repeated releases of dopamine, your craving for alcohol increased significantly.


Dopamine is your body’s way of trying to get you to do things your brain thinks are important for your survival and that of the species.


Your body releases dopamine when you:

·        Eat (especially sugar and simple carbohydrates).

·        Cuddle or have sex (and maybe watch porn).

·        Experience warmth when it’s cold (think cozy blankets and hot drinks).

·        Feel part of a group (hello FaceBook).

·        Accumulate resources (shopping, hoarding).


You can see how some of the things your brain thinks are good for survival can actually cause a problem taken to extremes.


Our primitive brain doesn’t always tell us when to stop simply because we’re getting overall results we don’t want.


This is why we have a nationwide obesity problem. Eating a cookie, or the entire package feels critical for survival on a primal level.


Depriving our primitive brain makes us feel like we are going to die.


Not only do you get a hit of dopamine when you drink alcohol, your clever brain learns to associate cues with alcohol. These “triggers” make you want alcohol more.


So when you walk into a bar, you think of your favorite cocktail.


When you get home from work, if your habit is to immediately open a bottle of wine, you’ll think of having wine when you come home from work (and likely on the way home).


If you always drink with a particular friend, when you make plans with her you’ll be thinking about having a drink.


In this way, your brain is conditioning you to drink under certain conditions as a way to reinforce the habit for alcohol.


This means you not only get the dopamine hit when you take a sip, you get dopamine when you think of drinking. This increases your desire and cravings.


The way to unlearn this conditioned response, and stop having a release of dopamine under these learned situations, is to experience the situations/places/friends, the cues or triggers, without drinking.


Just like Pavlov deconditioned dogs from salivating to the sound of a bell by ringing it multiple times without feeding the dogs, you can unring this bell for alcohol in certain situations by not drinking.


The more you don’t drink when you normally would, the less you’ll crave alcohol in those situations. You’ll begin to decondition your brain from releasing dopamine in response to your normal drinking cues. You’ll be unringing the bell.


Dry January is the perfect time to experience this deconditioning.


When you experience a situation in which you’d normally drink, but don’t, it becomes easier and easier each time, so long as you don’t try to use willpower.


Willpower backfires. Instead of decreasing desire, it perpetuates wanting alcohol.


During Dry January, focus on experiencing the wanting alcohol without trying to distract yourself or push thoughts of alcohol away with willpower.


You want to unring the bell, not put in ear plugs. Let yourself feel the wanting. Allow desire for alcohol to be present in your mind and body without drinking.


Do this and you’ll decondition your triggers for drinking, making stopping overdrinking that much easier.


For more tips on how to actually not drink during Dry January, visit www.julieernst.com and take my free course: Stop Overdrinking in 3 Steps.

Julie Ernst