Calm Your Cravings With Mindfulness Practice

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Neuroscientist Judson Brewer explains how mindfulness practice gives us the tools to change habits—and cravings—at their core, so we can move from reactivity to resilience.

By Jud Brewer

When we get hooked on the latest video game on our phone, or our favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, we are tapping into one of the most evolutionarily conserved learning processes currently known to science, one shared among countless species and dating back to the most basic nervous systems known to man. This reward-based learning process basically goes like this: We see some food that looks good. Our brain says, Calories, survival! And we eat the food. We taste it, it tastes good, and especially when we eat sugar, our bodies send a signal to our brains: remember what you are eating and where you found it. We lay down this memory—based on experience and location (in the lingo: context-dependent memory), and we learn to repeat the process the next time. See food. Eat food. Feel good. Repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward. Simple, right?

After a while, our creative brains tell us: Hey! You can use this for more than remembering where food is. The next time you feel bad, why don’t you try eating something good so that you will feel better? We thank our brains for that great idea, try it, and quickly learn that if we eat ice cream or chocolate when we are mad or sad, we do feel better. It is the same learning process, just a different trigger: instead of a hunger signal coming from our stomach, this emotional signal—feeling sad—triggers the urge to eat.

Or maybe in our teenage years we saw the rebel kids smoking outside school and looking cool, and we thought, hey, I want to be like them, and so we started smoking. See cool. Smoke to be cool. Feel good. Repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward. And each time we perform the behavior, we reinforce this brain pathway, which says, Great, do it again. So we do, and it becomes a habit. A habit loop.

Later, feeling stressed out triggers that urge to eat something sweet or to smoke. Now with the same brain mechanisms, we have gone from learning to survive to literally killing ourselves with these habits.

Training Resilience Through Mindfulness Practice

Dropping into a mindful awareness of our habitual reactivity helps us step out of the cycle of suffering—resting in awareness itself rather than being caught up in reactivity. Reactivity amounts to the opposite of resilience: resistance. As we go through the day, seeing how many times we react to or resist things beyond our control can help us see more clearly that we are training our own resistance.

In any type of addictive behavior, reactivity builds its strength through repetition—resistance training. Each time we look for our “likes” on Facebook, we lift the barbell of “I am.” Each time we smoke a cigarette in reaction to a trigger, we do a pushup of “I smoke.” Each time we excitedly run off to a colleague to tell her about our latest and greatest idea, we do a sit-up of “I’m smart.” That is a lot of work.

At some point we stop running around in the circles perpetuating our (perpetual) positive and negative reinforcement loops. When does this happen? Usually when we are exhausted—once we have grown tired of all the lever pressing and start to wake up to the fact that it isn’t getting us anywhere. When we stop and look at our own life, we can step back and see that we are lost, headed nowhere. We can pull out our compass and see that we have been orienting ourselves in the wrong direction. The beautiful thing here is that simply by paying attention to how we are causing our own stress—simply by being mindful—we can begin to train ourselves to walk the other way.

Let’s continue with the resistance-training metaphor. When training in a gym, we calculate how much to lift, how many time to lift it, and how long to hold it against gravity (resistance). Each aspect of the exercise contributes to the strengthening of our muscles.

When starting any type of un- or antiresistance training, whether taking a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course or using some other way to change, we can apply these three types of gym metrics to our reactivity as we go about our day. How often do we react by taking something personally? The simplest way to find out is to look for some type of internal contraction denoting an urge or attachment—remember, this physical sensation occurs with both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. How heavy is the burden, meaning, how contracted do we get? And finally, how long do we carry it around? Gaining a clear view of our reactivity will naturally point us to its opposite: letting go. We can use the same metrics to check our progress in this area. How often do we let go or not habitually react in a way that we used to? When we pick something up, is it lighter than before, meaning, do we not get as caught up in it? How long do we carry it around? And if we notice that we have been carrying something around, how quickly do we drop it (and not pick it back up)?

We can think of antiresistance training as an exploration more than a dogmatic framework for achieving some result. Orienting to stress and its opposite doesn’t lead to something in particular. Instead, paying attention helps us start moving in a particular direction, at any moment. The more we become familiar with our compass, the easier it becomes to realize how readily available this mode of being is, all the time. We don’t have to do anything special or go somewhere to get something. We simply have to learn what it feels like to get in our own way and the rest begins to take care of itself. Keeping our eyes open, seeing clearly, will keep us moving in that direction.