A new study shows that Tetris curbs cravings. Could it be the missing link in your relapse prevention plan?
Those who suffer from the disease of addiction are prone to relapse — and researchers and addiction specialists are constantly searching for the latest and most effective relapse prevention techniques. Relentless cravings are a symptom of alcoholism or drug addiction and managing cravings is one important aspect of relapse prevention.
Cravings are the intense urge or desire for a particular thing. As humans, our brains are hardwired to develop cravings for things necessary to our survival such as food and sex — two things we now know can also become addictive. Addictive substances and behaviours trigger the brain’s reward systems, which makes people want to do or have these things again and again.
Once actively addicted, cravings and drug seeking/taking become intertwined. Addicts will act upon an urge without conscious awareness. It is breaking this connection between craving and action that is incredibly difficult and requires planning and practise.
Relapse triggers are a common topic in relapse prevention and include the people, places, things and thoughts that we know will trigger intense cravings to use. While it is important to know and understand your personal relapse triggers, new research shows that cues for drugs or sex as brief as 33 milliseconds can activate the brain and trigger a craving.
These cues that occur in a split second are outside of our conscious awareness and account for the cravings that seem to come from nowhere. There is no way to completely avoid experiencing cravings, and while the thought of overcoming cravings is daunting, it is possible.
Especially in early recovery, relapse prevention will require significant effort to manage these cravings. Fortunately, cravings are temporary and will go away on their own if you do not give in — but that doesn’t always make it any easier. In drug or alcohol rehab you will learn coping skills to help you ride out the cravings in order to stay sober. The more tools you have at your disposal the better, and recently psychologists have discovered that the popular game Tetris curbs cravings for food, cigarettes and alcohol.
Playing Tetris to Reduce Cravings and Aid Relapse Prevention
The recent study found that playing Tetris for just three minutes can help significantly reduce people’s cravings. Participating in the visual distraction of the tile matching puzzle, rather than feeding your craving with imagery of what it would be like to give in, allows time for the craving to fade.
In the study, participants were asked to describe and rate the intensity of their cravings and were then randomly placed in one of two groups. One group played Tetris for three minutes while the other group waited for the game to load, but never actually got a chance to play. They then rated their cravings again. The group who played Tetris showed a significant decrease in their cravings compared to those who did not.
In describing the effects of Tetris on cravings, researcher and Professor Jackie Andrade states:
“Episodes of craving normally only last a few minutes, during which time an individual is visualising what they want and the reward it will bring. Often those feelings result in the person giving in and consuming the very thing they are trying to resist. But by playing Tetris, just in short bursts, you are preventing your brain creating those enticing images and without them the craving fades.”
Healthy distraction is an effective technique for dealing with cravings. Tetris is an easily accessible neutral distraction activity, but care must be taken with substitution techniques. Substitution can lead to further addiction — which is why people who have suffered alcohol or drug addiction in the past are more prone to developing a process addiction such as gambling, internet, or food addiction.
Other Craving Management Tips for Relapse Prevention
While playing Tetris specifically now has some scientific evidence backing its potential as a craving suppressant, people in successful addiction recovery already use many other techniques to help them manage cravings and stay sober. In fact, some may have already been using Tetris to distract themselves from cravings for years.
But putting Tetris aside, we will take a look at these additional relapse prevention tips that can be integrated into your comprehensive relapse prevention plan.
- Know and avoid triggers.
This is one of the most important relapse prevention strategies as it is a proactive instead of reactive approach. By knowing and avoiding your relapse triggers you will experience less frequent and less intense cravings overall.
- Use Healthy Distractions.
Playing Tetris is one example of a distraction technique. Focusing your attention on the game for a few minutes allows the craving to pass. You could also take a walk, call a friend, do a few stretches, or read a book — anything that gives your mind and body something else to focus on as the urge loses its intensity.
- Challenge your thoughts.
When cravings arise, your addiction will tempt you with thoughts about how great it would be to use right now. Remind yourself about the reasons you chose recovery in the first place — think about how bad it felt to be addicted, and the poor state your life was in during that time. If it helps, keep a written reminder in your wallet of why recovery is the only option, and refer to it when cravings arise.
- Practise mindfulness mediation.
Mindfulness meditation has made its way into many relapse prevention strategies. Practising mindful meditation will help you learn and recognise that all of our sensations are temporary. It will help you accept your cravings as normal, yet also understand that you do not have to act on your thoughts and feelings.
- Call on your supports.
Everyone in recovery has dealt with cravings. Ask others what has worked for them in their battle with urges and be sure to have a few people on hand that you can call any time a craving arises to help you ride it out without giving in.
These are just a few tried and true suggestions — relapse prevention is not one size fits all and you will have to find what works best for you in your quest to stay sober. Remember, as time goes by cravings will lose their power and will become less and less frequent. Take it one day at a time and celebrate your successes.