How Should You Respond to Alcohol Cues? A Complete Guide

How you should respond to alcohol cues in addiction recoveryAlcohol advertisements are nearly pervasive in the United States today, which can make it all the more difficult for those in recovery. Commercials, depictions in movies, references to alcohol in songs and so much more only perpetuates the fact that alcohol is practically celebrated in today’s society. In fact, in 2015, Adweek reported that over the past 40 years, alcohol advertisements have increased by 400%! No matter how long you’ve been in recovery, it’s always important to have some pre-set plans for how you might handle alcohol cues should they arise. Of course, it’s not always going to be feasible – nor wise – to avoid anything and everything that could have alcohol cues. If you’re faced with it, though, how should you respond?

Know Yourself: Identify Patterns of Your Reactions

First, it’s best to have an understanding for how you think, feel and behave when alcohol cues are present. Keep a journal and mark down what it was that came up and how that affected you – over time, you’ll start to recognize not only what types of alcohol cues seem to have the biggest influence on you, but also what your most common reaction is. With this, you’ll be able to establish “tells” – or, in other words, signs – that you’ll immediately be able to pick up, which you’ll then be able to act on before things get too out of control.

Sometimes, understanding the power of addiction can help in recognizing that some of the automatic reactions you experience to alcohol cues aren’t just you – they’re the disease, too. In 2016, an article published by Science Daily and written by researchers from Concordia University emphasized that Pavlovian cues – reacting to alcohol cues based on previously learned behaviors (such as through addiction) – can cause us to react, even when we least expect it. One person shared their story of alcoholism via the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) main website. They stated:

“I’d tell myself I have two weeks off (of drinking), then start back with a couple beers…I’d never last the two weeks and I’d always drink way more than I’d told myself I would, and the pattern would begin again.”

If you’re able to understand that reacting to alcohol cues does not mean that you’re weak or that you’ve failed – and you’re able to recognize patterns in your mind and body’s automatic reaction to alcohol cues, then you’ll be better prepared to work through them.

Combat the Cues with What Works

At the very beginning of recovery, avoidance may very well be your best option. Finding places to go that don’t serve alcohol, changing the station when a commercial with alcohol shows up and only surrounding yourself with people who prioritize sobriety are excellent ways to begin navigating the world of alcohol cues and recovery. Over time, however, you’ll want to become well-versed in a number of cognitive strategies for being able to handle alcohol cues – even when they are present – so that you can continue to enjoy your life without being affected by them. Through formal treatment and support groups such as 12-Step programs, you’ll learn a lot about what works – and you’ll be able to find out for yourself, too.


Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a highly effective tool that is learned in therapy and can help those in recovery combat alcohol cues by changing their thought patterns. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime lists some examples of this approach in action:

  • Reminding oneself of the negative consequences that alcoholism brings, and recalling strong motivations for sobriety
  • Taking inventory of oneself by recognizing what it is that may be influencing their sensitivity to alcohol cues that day and noticing how they’re thinking/feeling so they can take appropriate action
  • Planning “exit” strategies in case a person feels uncomfortable in a situation presented with alcohol cues
  • Practicing saying “no” to alcohol cues in various scenarios
  • Purposefully spending more time in places that uplift recovery rather than places of prior substance abuse
  • And more

Relapse Prevention

Relapse prevention is a key component of both formalized treatment programs and mutual-support groups such as 12-Step programs. In addition to the CBT strategies listed above, those in recovery may learn from one another some additional effective coping skills for handling alcohol cues, such as:

  • Engaging in positive self-talk by telling oneself that they’re capable of working through these cues, that they know how to handle high-risk situations, etc.
  • Garnering support from others to practice problem-solving skills when cues are present
  • Practicing relaxation techniques, such as breathing, meditation, yoga, etc.
  • Recognizing key emotions that can make a person more susceptible to relapse, such as anger, depression and others.

Don’t Give Up

Recovery is a lifelong process, and you’re not going to get it “right” all of the time. It’s going to take some learning and growth – but as long as you continue using the support of those around you, and you continue building your skills through treatment, you’ll become stronger than you ever thought possible.

Cumberland Heights is a nonprofit alcohol and drug-addiction treatment center located on the banks of the Cumberland river in Nashville, Tennessee. On a sprawling 177-acre campus, we are made up of 2 12-Step immersion campuses, 12 outpatient recovery centers and 4 sober living homes. We believe that each person has a unique story to tell – and that’s why we always put the patient first.