How Do I Overcome Cravings?
You may well have been told by some self development guru or other “don’t think of a pink elephant!’ in either:
A) An attempt to prove the brain cannot process a negative (it can by the way, that’s a total self development myth)
B) To demonstrate you’re not in control of your thoughts as you may sometimes think
Well I’m not going to tell you not to think of a pink elephant because you already have, but guest poster Patrik Edblad is going to talk about white bears.
Note: I changed the title of his original post for brevity’s sake as it was originally called:
How To Overcome Cravings Using a Simple & Scientifically Proven Technique
Imagine walking down the isle of a grocery store just minding your own business when suddenly you spot some candy.
Your favorite kind at that.
After a quick deliberation with yourself you’re reminded that you’ve committed to laying off the sweets this month so you decide to walk away.
But somehow you can’t. Suddenly a huge craving is taking over your entire being. You don’t want the candy anymore.
You need it!
Your rational planning suddenly doesn’t seem so important anymore.
”I could just have a couple of them. What’s it going to do? Kill me?”
Minutes later you’re in the parking lot chewing these delicious suckers down while guilt starts to slowly creep in. You’ve let yourself down. Again.
It’s crazy how much control cravings exert over us. Whether you’re battling sweets, nicotine, unhealthy food, alcohol, TV and/or social networks.
I’m sure you can relate and I bet you’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to overcome these urges.
A lot of research has been made on the nature of cravings and what’s been found is that you likely handle cravings the exact opposite way of how you should if you want to make them go away.
In fact, you’re probably even making them stronger and stronger.
What White Bears Can Teach Us About Urges
In an awesome experiment (1), Professor of Psychology Daniel Wegner and his colleagues randomly assigned students into one of two conditions.
In both conditions the participants were instructed to verbalize into a tape recorder (sweet, sweet 80’s) what they were thinking about for five minutes.
In one of the conditions the students were encouraged to think about a white bear. In the other condition the participants were told that they were not allowed to think of a white bear.
All the participants were also instructed to press a button every time they thought of this white bear.
The researchers then counted the number of times the bear popped up in the minds of the students.
As you may expect, they found that the participants who’d been instructed to suppress the thoughts of the white bear mentioned it fewer times than the people who were encouraged to think of it.
However, all of the participants ended up pressing the button about an equal amount of times – indicating that suppressing the thought did not work.
What’s even more interesting though is what happened when the subjects in the suppression condition performed yet another recording of their thoughts and verbalizations.
This time around they were told that they were allowed to think of the white bear.
These participants then spent an overwhelming amount of time discussing white bears and pressing the button.
Much more so than the group who were allowed to think of the white bear without any previous suppression. The initial suppression of thought had led to subsequent overindulgence.
This has some serious implications for situations in which we try to control our behavior by suppressing thoughts. Imagine what this means if you’re trying to cut down on sweets.
The more you repeat ”don’t eat that”, the more likely you are to make the urges even stronger and overindulge down the road.
How to Overcome Cravings
So, if it’s not a good idea to suppress our urges, how do you deal with them? You do the exact opposite.
In a study (2) by research scientist Sarah Bowen, she invited smokers who wanted to quit. Each brought an unopened pack of their favorite cigarettes.
The smokers were seated around a table and were then given some rather torturous instructions.
At intervals that lasted several minutes the smokers looked at their pack, removed the cellophane, opened the pack and smelled it, pulled out a cigarette, held it, looked at it, smelled it, tasted it, took out their lighter and held it close to the cigarette without lighting it.
The purpose of the experiment wasn’t to torment the participants but to investigate whether mindfulness can help smokers resist cravings. Before the test half of the smokers had learned a mindfulness technique called,”surfing the urge”.
When the participants left Bowen’s torture chamber after 90 minutes she didn’t ask them to change their smoking habits, or encourage them to use the technique they’d learned.
She did however ask them to report back how much they’d smoked, their daily mood and cravings for the following week.
By the seventh day after the experiment, the participants who’d not learned to ”surf the urge” showed no change while the smokers who’d learned the technique had cut back by an impressive 37%.
Surfing the Urge
The next time an intense craving surfaces do not suppress it. Remember, this only makes it stronger. Instead of denying or giving in to it, welcome the feeling and examine it.
This is what surfing the urge is all about. Let your craving become your trigger to these five steps:
1. Watch your breath (3). Let it be just the way it is and pay attention to it.
2. Notice your thoughts. Without judging, feeding or fighting them gently bring your attention back to your breath.
3. Pay attention to the craving. Notice how it is affecting your body.
4. Focus on just one area where you feel the urge. Notice what’s occurring. What’s the quality, position, boundaries and intensity of the sensation? How does it change with the inhale and exhale?
5. Repeat the focusing process. Pay attention to each part of the body that’s involved in the craving. Be curious about what occurs and notice how it changes over time.
When a craving starts setting in, always remember that the impulse will pass by itself regardless if you act on it or not.
Imagine that the urge is like an ocean wave that arrive, crest and then subsides. It will be small as it starts and then grow in size before finally braking up and dissipating.
The key is to move away from fearfully wishing that the craving will go away and instead develop an interest in the experience. When you do this, the urges will become much more manageable and you don’t have to be a mindless victim of them anymore.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness.” – Steven Covey
Patrik Edblad is a Mental Training Practitioner and life-long learner. He helps overwhelmed 20-somethings use scientifically proven strategies to regain control of their lives at Selfication.com.
Change your life the fun and easy way by joining his 7 Day Self-Reinvention Challenge.
There is a fine line and a big difference between strong cravings and an addiction. If you think you have an addiction, then by all means try this method, but also seek medical help because there’s no guarantee that it will work in and of itself.
Image: ‘Sugar Cravings’ Courtesy of Livin’ Spoonful