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What is an Extinction Burst and Why Should I Care?

An extinction burst is the last gasp of a bad habit. It is a sign that a learned behavior no longer works. The classic example is a child throwing a tantrum. The child has learned that throwing a tantrum is a way to get what it wants, so when you don’t give in to the tantrum, or worse, ignore it, the child doubles down and goes even more crazy. The worst thing a parent can do then is give in. It teaches the child that a tantrum still works after all–you just have to lean in.

Extinction bursts also explain why you can be doing well in recovery, then after a month or more of smooth sailing, you’re suddenly bombarded by cravings. You’ve been doing too well. Like the frustrated toddler, some part of your brain decides it will get what it wants no matter what. It gets desperate and throws a tantrum, which you experience as bad cravings. At this point, like the parent, the worst thing you can do is give in.

Unfortunately, that’s what many people do. They decide they’ve had enough and can’t take any more. This is perfectly understandable. A screaming child often gets what it wants even though the parent knows the child is irrational and has no idea what’s best for it. It’s much worse when the screaming child is inside your own head and presents you with seemingly rational arguments for relapsing. It takes some practice to figure out you can’t trust your own logic when it comes to addiction.

The good news is that an addiction burst usually means you’re winning. If any temptation would do, your brain wouldn’t have to hit you with intense cravings. But since you’ve been strong and ignoring the tricks that used to work, your brain has to up its game. The only question now is whether you can ride out the tantrum.

If you can ride it out, you will have won a major victory. Staying strong sends a message to your brain that you’re done with your addictive behavior. After the tantrum is over, sobriety will get a little easier. If you can’t ride it out, it can be a big setback. How big depends on how quickly you get sober again, but you’ve let your brain know that if it throws a big enough tantrum, you will eventually give in. That doesn’t mean you can’t overcome it; you just have to be ready for it.

Cravings come and go. Unfortunately, many people give up when they’re on the verge of victory. Being aware of extinction bursts and learning ways to manage cravings can help you stay sober. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, Gardens Wellness Center can help you detox safely and decide on a treatment strategy. Call us today at 844-325-9168 or email us at to learn more.