Cravings- Who’s Really in Control Here?
Sometimes I am hesitant to share advice or offer my opinion; but one thing I feel qualified to talk about is cravings. I have been a smoker, a smokeless tobacco user, had a sugar addiction that got me out of bed to eat sweets at 2 a.m. nightly, and I have battled with alcohol since the early 2000’s. Along the way, I have done a lot of research into habits, addiction, mental health, and anything I thought might be related. That led to Health and Functional Nutrition Coaching and a lot of discovery about what cravings are.
When I first decided that I needed to stop drinking, I hated the terms disease, craving, alcoholic, or addiction. I believed it was a matter of self-control, or some other issue. Having come through to the other side of my addictions, I am a lot more open to hearing and using those terms. Webster defines HABIT as “an activity repeated so frequently, it is done without thinking; or an addiction”. A habit can be created rather quickly if we know what it takes to make one and how to reward ourselves for doing things to create good habits. A CRAVING, according to the same dictionary, is “a yearning, or intense desire, for something, often to the point that any other wants or needs are ignored until the object of craving is obtained”. According to Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, habits CREATE neurological cravings, and it happens so gradually that we don’t even see it coming. As we associate triggers with rewards, cravings begin, which cements our habit loop in place. The two are inevitably tied together because a habit is really only a habit once a trigger, or cue, creates the expectation of a reward, IE a craving.
Don’t get me wrong, cravings are not all bad. Craving a pleasurable existence is normal. It is only when we allow our cravings (or the attempts to satisfy them) to create suffering, that they are a problem. So, before we dive into how we form habits and create cravings, a little anatomy of each of those is in order. With some minor differences in terminology, depending on if you read Duhigg, Fogg, or Clear, all of the experts agree that habits, and habit formation, consists of three parts:
1. A cue, or trigger, that reminds us to do whatever behavior the habit consists of.
2. A behavior, or routine, which is what we actually do that will lead to, or give us the reward.
3. The reward, which is what makes us want to do it again and completes the habit loop.
The reward is made up of two parts, the first is the expected- the donut, the cigarette, the drink, the scratch ticket- and the second part and what REALLY makes it a habit, is the release of chemicals, like dopamine, in our brains when we get the first part of the reward. A craving, on the other hand, doesn’t break down into these three easy parts. As I stated before, “habits CREATE a neurological Craving”. This is because the reward part of the habit loop causes our bodies to release a little bit of dopamine to go along with the reward. From an evolutionary standpoint, this happens so that we will repeat behaviors that would keep the species going. Rewards cause dopamine release which makes you want to REPEAT THE BEHAVIOR. Five or ten thousand years ago, eating something high in calories helped ensure we wouldn’t starve to death, so we were rewarded for it. We don’t have the same risks today, but the dopamine is still there and comes in bigger doses for some of the artificial ways we use to activate it (sugar, nicotine, alcohol, drugs, process addictions, etc.). That is the big problem for this model- it sets us up for cravings.
Normally, dopamine wires us to remember what we did so that we will repeat it in the future. Unfortunately, studies have shown that the amount of dopamine we get decreases with each successive repeat of the behavior. Once something is a habit, our brains will expect the reward as soon as it sees the cues and will light up as if it got the reward. However, that elation will turn to desire or frustration if the reward doesn’t come, or the behavior is interrupted. This glitch, so to speak, in the habit loop is why people with some habits insist on doing things a certain way. Each step in the habit loop has the potential to be another reward, or disappointment if things go wrong and the reward doesn’t come.
HOW DO I DEAL WITH CRAVINGS?
So now that we understand where these cravings come from, what can we do to curb those cravings while we work on eliminating the bad habit? There are almost as many ways as there are diets, smoking cessation, exercising, or 12 step books, but all of these have something in common- being able to recognize the craving, without dwelling on it, and then being able to let it go. I will discuss several methods briefly but if any of these resonate with you, and you would like to discuss it further, feel free to contact me.
Mindfulness or mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and doing so with no judgement. There are mindfulness classes, books, podcasts, etc., so you should investigate more than one before deciding if it is not for you. One great example of this is the RAIN technique, introduced by Michelle McDonald and popularized by Tara Brach. In this method you Recognize that the craving is coming as soon as you feel the twinges of wanting and then Relax into the craving. If you can be relaxed it will be easier to accept it. Accept the craving and allow it to be there. It’s natural and fighting it won’t help. Investigate bodily sensations. What does this craving feel like in your body? Is there a tightness in your chest, a dull throb in your temples, does your mouth feel dry, or are your salivary glands already starting to make your mouth water, is your heart racing? And finally Non-identification, or Note what is happening, which means not to let this craving define you. You are not the craving and as you allow it to be, note what happens, moment to moment, while it builds, peaks, subsides, and eventually goes away. When I took a smoking cessation course decades ago, they told us that a craving will pass in seven minutes. I’ve remembered that for a very long time and have found that most cravings for anything are gone in much less time.
Meditation is another method to reduce cravings. Having spent the last few months looking up and trying many different meditation practices, I’ve found that most of the different guided meditations on apps or podcasts are very similar. They all have to do with breath awareness, body awareness, compassion, and loving kindness. There are proven physiological benefits from meditating, this can be key if you are trying to break an addiction, as well as mental benefits. Meditation can be used in conjunction with mindfulness as a tool to become aware of your physical and psychological reactions to your cravings or as a tool to help you get completely out of your head and forget about the craving for a little while.
Lastly, community, service, and getting out of self can be helpful techniques. One of the things I have learned from hundreds of AA and smart recovery meetings, as well as research into several other recovery and 12 step programs (such as refuge recovery, overeaters anonymous, narcotics anonymous, tempest, and recovery elevator) is that they ALL encourage community and helping others, particularly someone with the same addiction problem as you. Several programs put a lot of emphasis on that; the teachings of tribal knowledge which stresses community and helping others, so that the newcomers build habits based on community and helping people get through their crisis and thus spend more time NOT in their OWN heads thinking about cravings.
HOW DO I PREVENT CRAVINGS?
It is important to deal with cravings as they come and to have some strategies to help cope with them until they pass; but it would be nice to minimize cravings all together. As you have seen, cravings come partly from the habit and the expectation of a reward. According to Johann Hari’s research for his book, Chasing the Scream, addiction is the psychological state of feeling you need the food/drug/behavior to give you the sensation you desire such as calm/numbed/energized/or whatever your hook does for you. Another part of craving comes from physical dependence, when your body has become used to having a substance and you experience physical withdrawal symptoms when you stop using that substance, such as sugar/processed carbs/caffeine/nicotine/ or something stronger, while your body readjusts to not having it. Knowing the difference between psychological cravings and physical withdrawal symptoms can go a long way towards helping you beat or prevent the cravings.
Part one of preventing cravings, since a big part of it is psychological, is to start erasing the habits and cues that trigger a craving. According to James Clear in Atomic Habits, to erase an existing habit we should:
1. Make the existing habit invisible by removing cues/triggers.
2. Make it unattractive. Reframe your habit so that it is less appealing and tempting.
3. Make it difficult. The more steps between cue or trigger and the behavior itself, the harder it is to do and the easier it is to ignore the cue.
4. Make it unsatisfying. One way to do this is to get an accountability partner and tell on yourself when you slip. If you are quitting smoking and you have to tattle on yourself every time you smoke, it will be less gratifying so you might slip less often.
While you are erasing that old habit, research shows us that the easiest way to create a new habit is to tie the desired behavior to an existing habit loop, so why not try replacing that afternoon “pick me up” bag of chips with an apple and bottle of water.
The second part of preventing cravings is to balance your biochemistry. Our bodies know when they are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals and where those can be found. If you are craving a particular food, our bodies may be telling us we need something. That is why we need to know the difference between a craving based on expectation of reward and a craving of a food because our body is low in some key nutrient. Craving an afternoon cookie could be for the dopamine release, or it could be that you didn’t get enough sleep the night before and your blood sugar is being affected. Craving oysters or shellfish could be that your body is low in zinc. Chocolate cravings accompanied by muscle cramps or eye twitches could mean your body needs magnesium. If you are trying to kick a bad habit or stop eating junk food, take a close look at your diet to be sure you are getting enough nutrients that are sometimes overlooked. Push out the bad by flooding in the healthy whole food, mostly plant based diet. It is easy to get more than enough vitamins, minerals, and trace elements this way.
WE SET OURSELVES UP FOR CRAVINGS
We have evolved to want to repeat behaviors that would keep us thriving as a species. In the last few hundred years we have created and discovered foods and drugs that hijack our reward system and create cravings for things that not only don’t help us survive, but they are also detrimental to our health. Look at your cravings and behaviors and give an honest assessment of whether you need to make a change. If so, now you know where to start.
Written By: Doug Davis, CHC