How to Treat Alcoholism and Prevent Relapse

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Alcoholism is a disease that affects 18 million adults in the United states and, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, up to 90 percent of alcoholics will have at least one relapse during the first four years after treatment.  

Alcohol addiction has gotten worse throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. A few months after the pandemic and stay-at-home orders began, a surge of people came to Mental Health Match to find professional treatment for alcohol dependency. 

However, addictions are treatable and people facing alcohol addiction can learn new skills and coping strategies to use in their everyday life. Studies show that remaining in treatment up to completion while also actively strategizing against high risk situations post-treatment increases your chance of avoiding relapse.

Alcohol is the most abused substance in the nation, but there are many ways to effectively manage cravings, find professional support, prevent relapse, and overcome addiction. 

Understanding the craving

The word “craving” refers to the emotional and physical urge that tempts you to drink, even if you have the mindful desire not to. 

A study conducted by Arnold M. Ludwig and LH Stark found that people who struggle with alcoholism experience classical conditioning to external and internal stimuli that reinforce the effects of alcohol – almost like a hunger. Two examples of classical conditioning are passing by your favorite bar or experiencing negative emotions that are associated with past drinking. 

There are two types of triggers that can set off a craving to drink: 

External – These are environmental or social factors, such as people or places that remind you of drinking and pose opportunities to drink. While more avoidable, these triggers are those outside of yourself and can be more situational based on social habits. 

External triggers can be sparked by situations such as: 

  • Emotional distress between loved ones and coworkers
  • Going to concerts, bars, or sporting games that are associated with drinking
  • Meeting new people
  • Social situations – family gatherings, parties, and intimacy
  • Being overwhelmed by responsibilities
  • Objects that bring back memories of alcohol

Internal – These are triggers from within, thoughts and emotions, that make you want to turn to alcohol. It can be set off by positive emotions, like a celebration or the confidence to have “just one drink”, or negative emotions, such as frustration or stress. 

Internal situations can be sparked by: 

  • Fear, shame, anger, and depression that entice you want to turn to alcohol to subdue 
  • Happiness, confidence, or sexual arousal that make you feel like you can handle external triggers
  • Managing societal pressures and everyday life frustrations
  • Underlining mental illnesses

A study that analyzed 48 relapse episodes found that most were prompted by high-risk situations like frustration/anger, social expectations, and relational temptations. Texas therapist Danielle Ojeabulu writes that alcohol use is one sign of depression that you should watch for. 

Alcohol addiction treatment options

Recovery from alcoholism can be a long process, and you may need a mix of treatments depending on your problems and needs. Many adults living with alcohol dependency also have mental health disorders, so programs that treat both issues simultaneously could be beneficial for you.

Research shows that those with an addiction are most successful with at least three months of treatment, along with consistent communication post-completion.

Here are a few common treatments that you may encounter in your recovery journey: 

Psychotherapy – This treatment addresses your challenges by discussing how to navigate your emotions from the inside out. You may talk with your therapist about daily problems or past traumas to help better understand and manage your cravings. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – The approach behind this method of therapy is to identify negative thoughts and behaviors and replace them with positive habits.

Often used among people struggling with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), it is a great option for those looking for the accountability that a therapist can provide. 

Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) – A type of motivational interviewing for substance abuse, motivational enhancement therapy aims for quick change by setting direct goals for improvement and future planning.

In this form of therapy, you will discuss issues in your life that have been caused by alcohol abuse and craft plans for overcoming future triggers you will come across. 

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – This approach will help you to manage strong emotional reactions through four main strategies:

  • Core Mindfulness
  • Distress Tolerance
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness
  • Emotion Regulation

It can also consist of group therapy sessions in addition to individual sessions with a therapist.

Since you will be meeting with your therapist throughout the span of many months, it is crucial you feel comfortable with and trust your mental health provider from the very start. If you experience a relapse, your therapist will be there for you to discuss and learn from the triggering events. Find a therapist who can help with alcohol addiction. 

Preventing relapse in tense situations

It is not always possible to avoid triggers and high-risk situations. To overcome these incidents, consider using these strategies to mitigate the urge to drink: 

  • Analyze the thoughts that drives the urge and remind yourself of the change you are trying to make
  • Confide in someone you trust and have them attend social events with you 
  • Distract yourself with productive hobbies and short coping techniques, such as texting or watching online videos
  • Leave the situation – you don’t have to stay anywhere you don’t feel comfortable or secure 

If you are ready to overcome alcoholism and speak to a mental health professional, Mental Health Match can introduce you to therapists that can help guide you towards an alcohol free life. 

Find a licensed therapist who best matches your needs. 

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