3 Steps to Outsmart Cravings, Part 2
November 22nd, 2013 by Katie Morton
Photo credit: JD Hancock / Creative Commons
Step 2: Recognize Mindless Excuses.
I’m going to tell you the story of how I tackled step two, of recognizing my excuses.
On one particular day I was experiencing a craving, and I started this familiar argument with myself.
The argument started, “…No, I can’t give in….I’ve got to lose weight.”
Then I thought something sort of ridiculous: I thought: “You always give in. It’s inevitable.”
Now I’m going to stop right here – we all have these conversations in our heads, so I know this sounds kind of nuts, but just bear with me – because then another voice piped up in my mind. This voice was so different from the usual, that it was like the voice of an angel.
This voice said, “Inevitable? No. Sorry. You have complete control over your behavior. You can make the right choice. It’s in your power.”
And this was the start of my truly practicing willpower. I didn’t give in that day. I tried to give in, as usual, but I had this realization:
Thoughts are just thoughts. We don’t have to obey them.
About the brain chatter we hear while we’re experiencing a craving
In step two, you’re going to learn how to recognize excuses by tuning into the brain chatter that drives you towards giving in.
This means you’re going to acknowledge that before you give in to a craving, you’re thinking about it. There’s a voice in your head telling you to go for it. You might not even argue with yourself. The voice might just say, “Oh those muffins smell really good. I should have one.”
While other times, you might have these arguments in your head – I am the queen of mental arguments – but for many of us, we’re not really paying attention to the back and forth, or we’re not even aware of the things we’re telling ourselves right before we give in to a craving.
Let’s say you’ve got a serious craving for something naughty. Now the next step is to listen to what your brain is saying when you have a craving. Pay attention to the words that come to mind. When your brain is flooded with dopamine, and you’re in the throes of a craving, your brain will tell you just about anything to talk you into it.
Now here are some examples of common craving thoughts. You might think things like:
“I’m too tired to cook.” Or “We didn’t plan dinner; we should just get takeout.”
Or “I had a bad day! This calls for a pint of ice cream.”
Or I ran out of gas AND I got a flat tire AND I got stuck in traffic. This calls for a six pack of beer!
Or, and this was one of my all-time favorites, and what kept me stuck in my own bad habits forever: “Don’t worry, I’ll do better tomorrow.”
I know, I’m not that original: the “I’ll do better tomorrow” is a popular one. Because I was using the “tomorrow” line on myself just about every day, what I eventually figured out is TOMORROW NEVER COMES. And then one day soon, there is literally No Tomorrow. You’re done.
Now that I’m nearing age 40, it finally smacked me between the eyes that continually putting off habit change is cute until it’s lethal. Any justifications I was using to continually procrastinate about getting a handle on unhealthy habits, those little white lies, would have killed me if I didn’t decide that the jig is up.
Cravings often “solve” a problem
All of these little reasonings – like I had a bad day, or I’ll start tomorrow – all sound like rational thoughts to us when we’re in the grips of a craving. But do you know what they actually are? They are excuses. They are excuses to give in to cravings! This is what your brain does. We often look at these cravings like they solve a problem.
For example, getting takeout solves the problem of being too tired to cook or having no dinner plans.
Ice cream or beer solves the problem of suffering from a bad day.
As we already know: putting something in our mouths doesn’t change what’s happening out there outside of our bellies. So if I’m too tired to cook, it means I need sleep way more than I need takeout. I could have a bowl of soup and go to bed!
If you had a bad day, eating ice cream doesn’t change what already happened. The bad day is over. Ice cream kind of makes your day worse…well, sure, while you’re eating it? Great. But that’s a short-lived experience. And then after you eat it, how do you feel? You feel worse.
Remember the empty promises of dopamine from part 1 of this series. We think the object of our desire is going to solve something for us, that it’s going to make things better. But then after we indulge, we’re left a little worse off than we were before.
Write down your craving brain chatter
So in this step, the exercise is this: Pay attention to the words that your brain generates to encourage you to give in. We all talk to ourselves when we have a craving. Some of us argue with ourselves; we do that dance – I should have some. No, I couldn’t. Yes, I could!
Some of us simply say, “Yes, please, I will have some.” Some of us think up some amazing reasons and excuses as to why we should give in.
This article might trigger all kinds of reactions in you; some people are actually going to get mad at me and think, WHY ARE YOU RUINING A PERFECTLY GOOD VICE! I LIKE ALCOHOL! I LIKE ICE CREAM! LIFE IS EMPTY WITHOUT THESE THINGS!
Okay, write that down. That’s your brain chatter. Your brain is getting mad at me for threatening what your brain is trying to convince you is critical to your survival. It’s all part of the craving brain’s plan.
Get it all out on paper. Write down your craving thoughts over a period of 3 to 4 days. Notice when you get cravings, and write down the thoughts that follow. Like “I’m tired.” Or “I just want it.” Or, “I can’t live without it.”
By writing down our craving thoughts, it gives us a clear vantage point to understand both how ridiculous and how clever so many of our excuses can be.
The exception to the rule
It’s very rare that we give in to cravings and then feel relieved or happy afterwards – unless – here is the exception – unless we are very conscious of what we’re doing and we stay in the moment and we really experience and savor the treat.
When you truly pay attention to your food – when you sit quietly with NO OTHER DISTRACTIONS, I mean no TV, no reading, no smart phones, no computer – when it’s just you and your food and you focus on each bite, when you focus your attention on what the food tastes like and feels like as you chew, and when you eat slowly and chew thoroughly and carefully – it’s basically impossible to overeat! You would seriously get bored before you could get full when you pay painstaking attention to each bite and the entire process of chewing and swallowing.
This is my number one weight loss tip: pay attention to your meals. While you’re eating, BE HERE NOW. In the moment. When your attention strays, bring it back. Do it over and over again, for the rest of your life. If you don’t meditate, then BOOM, now you do.
When we don’t pay attention, and we just let dopamine run ram shod over the experience, then it’s highly likely that we overindulge, and this is what ruins the experience.
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