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HALT – 4 Triggers That Slip People Up When They Stop Drinking
I have heard it said often that stopping drinking “is not about willpower” but what does that mean actually? If not picking up a drink when you’ve promised to stay sober is not about willpower what is it about?
I tried to stop drinking unsuccessfully for years. I would start the day determined never to drink again, only to find by 5 pm that I was lifting a glass to my lips with an absolute sense of certainty that I needed that bottle of wine, deserved that bottle of wine, and could handle that bottle of wine. All too often that single bottle became two. The next morning I would wake in disbelief that I had not had the “willpower” to resist again and the cycle would renew with my promise “never to drink again”. I struggled with feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment as I went around the same routine week after week like a hamster on a wheel.
If you are trying to stop drinking and are unable to make it past the first few days alcohol-free, or if you’re struggling to find the momentum to stay sober for a month or more, it will help tremendously if you understand these 4 triggers – Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired – HALT
We tend to overcomplicate what cravings mean when we stop drinking. I was concerned that I might be “psychologically” addicted to alcohol, or that I craved alcohol because I fit the profile of an addictive personality. But in the beginning, when I first stopped drinking, not picking up a drink was achieved simply by getting all of my drink of choice out of the house, not replacing it, and identifying what the thing I actually needed was. The need was the trigger that set off the alcohol craving. The alcohol was not actually the thing that I needed.
If you are a habitual drinker you are likely used to feeding your needs with alcohol, at least after 5 pm. You start to feel hungry after work so you have a cocktail. You open a bottle of wine when you walk in the door to help you relax and shift up your energy to your after-work routine. You have a tense moment with your partner and you don’t want it to escalate but you’re angry so you have another drink to mask the emotion. You’re feeling bored or lonely so you seek comfort in yet another drink. It is all too easy to become accustomed to feeding your needs and filtering your feelings through a rather steady stream of alcohol.
Shifting this routine from the natural rhythm of what many adults do every night, to a new alcohol-free lifestyle is not as easy as just saying “I will not drink tonight” and expecting the same power of will you exert over all of the other challenges in your life to “make it happen”. You need to have a plan and an understanding of HALT.
Let’s break down the anacronym HALT into its components
Why do you crave a drink when you are Hungry and what can you do about that?
There are several triggers that set off cravings to drink in the late afternoon, and the easiest trigger to counteract is Hunger!
If you have decided that you want to stop drinking make sure that you have something to eat in the afternoon. A hearty snack at 4 pm or an early dinner can make all of the difference. Afternoon snacks and early evening meals are a lifesaver in the first weeks sober. It is also helpful for many to use L-glutamine powder as a supplement to counteract the afternoon blood sugar crash that often triggers an alcohol craving.
For more in-depth information on using L-glutamine in early sobriety, and the connection between hypoglycemia and alcoholism, please open these articles from our Boozemusings blog :
Alcohol Cravings and Hypoglycaemia
Alcohol sugar cravings (managing them) and the whole Gut-Brain health connection thing.
and this article from inside our BOOM Rethink the Drink Community :
A represents Anger. It also represents Mad, Sad, Glad, Guilty, Ashamed, Afraid. How am I feeling? Don’t judge it. Just identify it and lean into it. Allow the feeling to wash over you, like a wave coming onto shore. It won’t knock you off your feet if you lean into it. The feeling will subside, much like the wave.
Anger is one of the trickiest triggers, not just in the first days after you stop drinking, but in the first months sober. Most of us who are habitual drinkers have learned to drink at people when they make us angry. Anger is a powerful emotion that can literally knock you off your game no matter how committed you may be.
There is no one easy solution to the anger trigger as there is to the Hunger trigger. But drinking never did make the anger go away, it most likely inflamed it more and left the problem unsolved. So if anger is a trigger for you please read the following posts from our Boozemusings blog, written by three different people in different stages of living life alcohol-free, who have found solutions that worked for them.
Anger Management in Early Sobriety – Facing Your Feelings Alcohol-Free
Diffusing the A in HALT or How to Stop Drinking AT people
Not My Circus Not My Monkeys – How to Stop Drinking at the Problems of the World
BREATHE: I use breath to help calm my racing mind or emotional distress. I breathe in what I need and breathe out what I don’t need. Breathe in slowly through the nose, hold, then breathe out through the mouth. Do this in a rhythm that suits you. I choose exactly what I need, in that moment of time.
Breath in Hope – Breath out Despair
Breath in Joy – Breath out Sorrow
Breath in Peace – Breath out War
Breath in Acceptance – Breath out Rejection
Breath in I Can – Breath out I Can’t.
There is a quote by Caroline Knapp who wrote a wonderful biography called Drinking a Love Story
“To a drinker the sensation is real and pure and akin to something spiritual: you seek; in the bottle, you find.”
Emptiness, boredom, and loneliness, are very common feelings in the early days and weeks of sobriety. Many people find that there is pain like the feeling of a love lost during the first few weeks without alcohol. It can seem like this is because life IS INDEED empty without the drink but there could be nothing further from the truth. The only way that I got to the point where I KNEW that life is better, fuller, richer – without the booze – was to stop drinking and stay stopped long enough to begin to feel it. Sometimes it seems that getting numb is the only way to soothe life’s pains but the opposite is true.
One of the reasons that groups like AA are so effective is that community and connection fill that void in early sobriety. Our online community serves the same purpose of replacing the isolation of addicted drinking with connection. Not just connection to other people within the community, but reconnecting with yourself through writing out your story.
The emptiness, loneliness, and boredom are not there because you stopped drinking, they were created by the addiction. Reaching out and reaching within can help you beat those triggers and build back a better life than you ever had before you started drinking.
For more thoughts on the Lonely/Bored trigger and how to beat it here are several posts from our Boozemusings Blog:
Alcohol Takes – Thoughts on Fear, Loneliness and Living Sober
Filling the Empty Space in Early Sobriety
Loneliness and Meditation- Just Say “YES” to Sunday Morning Calm
Distractions when the L/B in HALT hits
6 Documentaries to Help You Rethink Alcohol Use and Abuse
A Question a Day for 31 Days to help You Quit Drinking
30 posts for 30 days To Help You Quit Drinking
I think that tired, is the most misunderstood of the HALT triggers and can catch people up when they first stop drinking. Alcohol is a depressant after all! It slows you down, makes your speech slurry, and knocks you out. Why would you crave a drink when you are tired?
When I decided that I had to stop drinking at 50, the idea of sobriety left me cold. I was used to seeing wine as my rocket fuel. The carrot at the end of the stick that I chased throughout my day. How would I shut down? What would my friends and family think if I told them I COULDN’T drink? How would I juggle my job and parenting and household responsibilities without my nightly wine? How would I live the active, colorful life I knew……….. sober?
Something that I learned only after I stopped drinking and missed that JOLT in the afternoon is that alcohol creates a cocktail of chemical reactions in your brain that lift you up and then bring you down. The perfect drug for the end of a long hard day – if only we could stick to a single serving!
There are some thoughts on that chemical cocktail in this post from our Boozemusings blog
The alcohol effect on middle aged “fun” sensors
And thoughts on how to
How to NOT open a Bottle at Wine o’Clock
in the post linked above .
There is a saying among people in our community, stopping drinking is SIMPLE but NOT EASY. The simple part is deciding that you will not drink. The “not easy” part is doing something about that. Understanding HALT and the best way to counteract the Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired triggers will give you a good foundation to fight the fight and win.
The reason it took me so long to stop and stay stopped was that I truly believed that drinking was giving me something that I needed and that life would be too painful to colorless without it. The only way that I got to the point where I KNEW that life was better without the booze was to stop drinking and stay stopped long enough to begin to feel it.
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