recovering alcoholic tempted to drink again

Why Alcohol Cues May Trigger Relapse Despite Long-Term Recovery

By Nicole Arzt is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in providing psychotherapy for individuals, families, and groups struggling with substance use disorders and psychiatric illnesses.

Sober Recovery Expert Author

recovering alcoholic tempted to drink again

People struggling with alcohol use disorder know the depths of destruction and shame associated with their drinking. Often, they want to stop. They just can't. They don't know how to do it. The cravings feel too intense, and life seems too hard. The vicious cycle ensues.

Most people understand that achieving long-term recovery requires conscious effort and willingness. Likewise, getting there involves self-exploration and profound change.

People struggling with alcohol use disorder know the depths of destruction and shame associated with their drinking.

However, even years of sobriety doesn't guarantee immunity. People must always have an awareness of the risk of relapse. Moreover, research shows that physical trace memories may continue to trigger intense cravings.

Long-Lasting Physical Memory Traces

We know that the brain has a massive capacity (up to 2.5 petabytes or the equivalent of 4,000 256GB iPhones) for memory storage. While most short-term memories disappear, longer ones can stay with you for your entire life.

Of course, you might want to hold onto some of those memoriesespecially if they were positive. However, when it comes to adverse experiences like substance abuse, you might want to forget the anguish.

Research shows that memory traces refer to the physical neuronal composition linked to a particular memory. One study examined how mice responded to a specific "drinking game." Each time the mouse pressed a level, it received a small amount of alcohol, and a light turned on. The mice quickly learned to pair this light with alcohol. After completing the game, the light still triggered the mice to seek alcohol and "relapse."

The researchers concluded that drinking activated a cluster of prefrontal cortex neurons. When they used the drug, clozapine, they could effectively silence these neurons. Mice with "silenced" neurons showed less interest in pressing the levereven if the researchers turned on the light.

They concluded that associations (triggers) could persistently cause relapse behavior. In just 15 days, the mice formed the memory trace. However, the authors noted that further research needs to be conducted to determine how long it takes for drinking to change the human brain.

How to Protect Your Long-Term Recovery

It's impossible to eliminate all environmental triggers. Many people agree that, under certain circumstances, anything can become triggering. That's why it is essential to continue studying brain activity associated with addiction, recovery, and relapse. Such research breakthroughs can be profound for people who are struggling.

However, it is essential to note that you aren't doomed. Many people can and do stay sober for the rest of their lives. Some considerations include:

  • Continue building and implementing healthy coping skills: The more you practice integrating new behaviors, the more you can change your neural pathways.
  • Lean on healthy support: Many people feel ashamed over their cravings. As a result, they withhold their struggles from others. Sometimes, this causes isolation. However, by reaching out for support, you give yourself the opportunity for people to help you.
  • Mindfulness: Research continues to emphasize the benefits of mindfulness for impulse control, stress, and relapse. Consider adding a short meditation practice in your day.
  • Medication: Some medications can help with alcohol cravings. Additionally, if you struggle with depression or anxiety, psychiatric medication can help stabilize your mood.

Nearly 15 million Americans struggle with alcohol use disorder. While this number seems staggering, there is hope. Research continues to shed light on how substance use impacts the brain. And as we learn more about these variables, we will refine and improve our guidelines for treatment and recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, you can visit our directory of rehab centers or call 800-891-8171 to speak with a treatment professional.

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