Three Ways To Manage Cravings
Hi. My name is Judy and I’m a chocoholic.
How do I know this? Because when I walk past the chocolate section in the supermarket I have to look the other way. Cadbury’s chocolate entices me, Tim Tam biscuits beckon me. Sweet white chocolate, creamy milk chocolate, filled, praline, dark and bitter-sweet – it all tempts me.
I remind myself that although I want to indulge, eating chocolate to excess (I have trouble stopping at one) is not good for my health. I take a deep breath and divert my attention away from the image in my mind and the discomfort in my throat where I sense the craving, towards wherever there is comfort in my body – often this is my sense of being strong and healthy and wanting to remain so, wanting to care for my body. I focus on a mental picture of this physical health and vitality, and this image competes with the previous one of me eating chocolate. I also allow myself to feel kindness and gentleness towards myself – yes, I desire something strongly, but I care enough about myself to not go down that road. The days of eating a whole packet of Tim Tams in one sitting are gone.
When I focus on my good health and my sense of wanting to maintain it with a feeling of caring for myself rather than berating myself, my cravings lessen and I can walk away. And the more I do this, the easier it gets.
Why does this happen? Why do we crave? Whether it’s nicotine, alcohol, chocolate, food in general or even technology the cravings we feel in our body start in the brain and are associated with our perception of our body states, the awareness of our body (both inside and out) at a particular point in time. This internal perception is called interoception and is essential to our well-being. There are several brain structures thought to be important in interoception with one of the most important being the insula, which is thought to facilitate our concept of self-awareness. This includes the awareness of our bodies and emotions, and how they interact to create our perception of the present moment.
Interoception is thought to be connected to self-regulation. We’ve evolved this capacity to be sensitive to our internal states as a survival mechanism in order to maintain homeostasis, ie so that we recognise the sensations that mean hunger, fatigue or cold, and thereby know when we need to eat, sleep or get warm.
How sensitive you are to interoception, to the sense of signals originating in the body, will guide your decision making. And it’s also thought that interoception may contribute to mood states.
So let’s think about what we do when we practice mindfulness. We check in with the body, we get into our senses, we take note of emotional and physical states and where they reside. If you’ve done one of my courses or been to one of my seminars, you’ll recall that I usually ask some odd questions, such as
- How do you know, in your body, when you’re anxious?
- How do you know whether the sensation in your belly is hunger or anxiety?
- How does joy feel different to sadness?
- What’s your body’s earliest warning sign (EWS) that you’re about to express anger?
- If love and hate are both felt in the chest, how can you tell the difference between them?
- If you lose concentration, how do you know if you’re tired or stressed?
These are all questions that can only be answered with sensitivity to one’s body states, ie interoception. And this is exactly what mindfulness practice trains us to do. And, as with any learning process, the more we practice, the better we get at it.
Brain studies on short, long-term and non-meditators have shown that meditation results in enhanced blood flow to the insula leading to increasing thickness in this structure. Just as developing specific muscles in the gym makes them stronger, developing thickness in specific neural structures makes them better at doing whatever it is they do. Remember, at the beginning of this blog I said that the insula plays a major role in interoception and self-awareness. So a thickening in this region means that it’s being used more and is getting stronger, ie regular mindfulness practice enhances one’s understanding of signals originating in the body. In turn, this improves capacity to notice EWSs of cravings.
So let’s get back to my chocolate addiction.
Years of mindfulness practice has increased my awareness of EWSs of my chocolate cravings. Instead of trying to push the cravings away, I bring intentional awareness to where they reside and what they feel like. Then, using self-regulation (also developed by meditation practice) I shift my attention from the sensations in the parts of my body where the cravings reside to wherever the feelings of health and vitality reside. As I live with injuries and chronic pain it can sometimes be challenging to find those healthy sensations, and probably for that reason stronger pain usually brings on stronger cravings.
But the harder it is to do, the more resilience you will develop, just like pushing heavier weights at the gym. Unlike the gym, however, we don’t allow the mantra “more pain, more gain”. If, on occasion it gets too tough and you give in to temptation, self-compassion, not self-recrimination is the quickest way to get back on track. Recognise that you’re human and fallible and that sustained change takes time.
Maybe today you’ve only smoked half a packet instead of a full one, or you’ve really enjoyed sipping slowly and mindfully on just one glass of wine instead of guzzling 5 or 6. All of that is progress. Decide on your goal and move mindfully towards it with the same gentleness and kindness you would use to train a child or a pet out of a bad habit and into more skilful behaviours.
So what are some of the ways we can learn to manage cravings?
- Practice recognising how thoughts and emotions register in the body in order to recognise the Early Warning Signs (EWS) that lead to cravings.
- Do the body scan meditation regularly – it will help with point 1.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself if you occasionally eat, drink, smoke more than you had planned. Self-compassion is an important step on the path to regaining control of your cravings.