It’s 8:30 at night. You had a pretty good day with the family, work, maybe some nice moments with friends. All is going relatively well in your life. You just finished cleaning up after dinner and are just settling in with your book or catching up on your favorite television series. Then it hits. Craving. The call from the kitchen for the sweet treat, the salty snack. We try to wait it out, but it keeps calling. We tell ourselves that we really shouldn’t, but maybe just a little taste of that leftover cake will satisfy the urge of craving. We react on the craving. And guess what? It doesn’t help. Instead of soothing and satisfying the urge, we end up feeling uncomfortable, full of remorse sprinkled with a bit of self loathing.
It’s not only food that we can crave. Craving can come in many forms; an internet binge when we are supposed to be writing that report, shopping when we know we don’t have enough in the bank account, the third glass of wine when we know we’ve had enough, etc.
Sometimes craving strikes from a particular trigger. For example, if we are feeling sad, or lonely or bored, we may be triggered to eat to comfort or distract ourselves or buy those expensive shoes that may temporarily fulfill a sense of emptiness. Advertising agencies are very skilled at showing us that we need that new piece of technology, the piece of furniture, the expensive trip. More than ever, we are lured by social media ads and commercials that know how to play on our emotions and it becomes easy to get in the self destructive loop of giving in to craving.
Here are three reasons why craving can strike and ways mindfulness can help:
1) Physical Cravings – Is it All In Your Head?
No, not exactly. The body, when deficient of certain nutrients, can crave certain foods. If we’re craving salty foods, it can mean a mineral deficiency or dehydration. When we lack sleep, our inhibitions are down and we are more likely to fall into the nagging pull of craving. When we are low on energy, we may crave caffeine, sugary foods or carbohydrates for that instant energy fix.
How Mindfulness Helps…
We can use mindfulness practices to help us reconnect and listen more deeply to the physical needs of the body. Making it a habit to practice a simple body scan, either in a seated position or lying down, is a great way to bring more awareness to the body. I recommend to my mindfulness meditation students to, upon arising in the morning, take just a minute or two to scan the body from head to toe; noticing sensation in the body before you start your day. As you move through your day, practice a body scan while driving (eyes open please). You can even make it a habit to do this at every traffic light.
The more aware we are of our bodies the more likely we are able to notice if we are really physically hungry, or need more sleep (and turn off the technology at night), more exercise, more water, less sugar, etc. When we become more connected to our physical bodies we become more aware of when we are eating out of real hunger or perhaps another trigger.
2) Emotional – “What’s Eating You?”
When we are in a high emotional state and being hijacked by our limbic system (the “flight or fight” region of the brain), we are more likely to react to craving and soothe ourselves with food, an internet binge, shopping, wine (fill in your own compulsion here ________ …Not enough space? Congratulations, you are human).
If you have experienced the pull of a glass of wine after a busy week of work or the desire to binge watch something on Netflix after hearing difficult news, you might be experiencing the emotional reaction of craving. With a mindfulness practice we can be more aware of our emotional states; sadness, anger, loneliness, frustration, and choose a better response to a strong emotion.
How Mindfulness Helps…
With mindfulness, we learn, little by little, to sit with the emotion. We notice how it shows up in the body, experience it and watch it pass. We start to learn that all emotional states are transitory and we become better skilled in dealing with the highs and lows of life. With regular practice, we are able to put the “pause button” on reactivity and create a little space between ourselves and the strong emotion. When we can recognize that we are in a heightened emotional state we can take effective action.
3) It’s a habit.
« A habit, from the standpoint of psychology, is a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience. »
When I was in high school, I would come home from school and walk immediately to the fridge and see what was there. I didn’t always eat something, but it became such a habit that many years later, when I walked into my parents home, it was still a habit to walk directly to the fridge and take a peek.
When we are in the habit of craving, we are never in direct contact with the things we desire, but only with the mental representations of them in our minds. It’s this truth that holds the promise of freedom from the destructive cycle of reacting on craving (particularly at the level of addiction). We may not be able to change the things (the subtle influence of media, challenging relationships, difficulties in life) that trigger our craving – those cues will continue. But we can change how we relate to our mental experiences of them—the thoughts, images, and bodily sensations of craving. As one of my favorite meditation teachers, Jack Kornfield says, “You can’t change the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”
How Mindfulness Helps To Surf The Urge…
A regular practice of mindfulness can help us become more aware of our conditioned ways of responding and gives us a moment of “pause” before reacting on our cravings/habits.
When the craving hits, notice the edginess of it. Where you feel it in your body? Is there tightness or nervousness in the body? How does it show up? Be curious for the sensation of craving and notice that just by cultivating a curiosity for the feeling of craving, you become less attached to the feeling and therefore, less likely to react. Watch how craving is not necessarily a “fixed” state but is a feeling that constantly changes (like everything). Relax any tension you might feel in the body. Take one slow, deep, mindful breath to activate the prefrontal cortex (the region of our brains associated with impulse control). If we sit with it long enough, we can watch it pass. With regular practice of being aware of craving, we are changing the conditioned ways of being and actually rewiring our brains for a better response.
Compassion, Compassion, Compassion…
Finally, be gentle with yourself. Our reactions to cravings are sometimes conditioning that we’ve spent years building up. If you can’t be mindful before reacting, be mindful while you are acting upon the craving. If you can’t be mindful while you’re reacting to the craving, be mindful (and for goodness sakes, compassionate) afterwards. When we practice in this way, we can truly put an end to our unconscious reactions to craving and create real transformation for our health and wellbeing.
About the author :
Jennifer Frye has been teaching Mindfulness Meditation and Yoga in Neuchâtel since 2007. She has completed courses in vipassana (insight) meditation, yoga teacher trainings, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), and professional courses in positive neuroplasticity training.
She teaches a 6 week secular Mindfulness Meditation course based on her studies with a variety of teachers including Rick Hanson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sharon Salzburg, S.N. Goenka. She also teaches workshops and weekend Yoga and Mindfulness Meditation retreats.
Find out more about Jennifer: www.wellbalanced.me
Reference Andrews, B. R. (1903). « Habit ». The American Journal of Psychology. University of Illinois Press. 14 (2): 121–49.
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