The People's Perspective on Medicine

Show 1152: Can You Conquer Your Cravings with Mindfulness?

Mindfulness and curiosity can help interrupt a habit loop, conquer your cravings and overcome addiction.
Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, author of The Craving Mind
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Can You Conquer Your Cravings with Mindfulness?

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Have you ever thought about how a bad habit gets started? You can blame the neural wiring and chemistry we share with all animals. When we do something that feels good in the moment, we remember it and are likely to repeat that action. But “feels good” doesn’t always translate into “good for you.” How can you conquer your cravings?

Addiction can be defined as “continued use despite adverse consequences.” By this definition, there are quite a few things we may be addicted to, including Good & Plenty or Gummy Worms candy. In addition to the obvious (tobacco, coffee, alcohol), there are behaviors like texting or anxiety that might not seem addictive but can become unhealthy. To change these habits, we need to pay attention to how the loop of trigger-behavior-reward works for us.

How Can Mindfulness Help?

Employing mindfulness just as you might use it during meditation can be useful. If you have ever tried to meditate, you know how hard it can be to keep your thoughts from wandering off. And perhaps you have been advised to recognize that detour, accept it, pay attention to how it feels and note what is happening from moment to moment. Recognizing the trigger, the behavior and how the reward actually feels can help you identify what you persist in doing despite adverse consequences. This type of mindfulness can also help you conquer your cravings and change your behavior.

Changing the Reward to Conquer Your Cravings:

If you want to change your behavior, you need to figure out how to change the way you react to the trigger. But first, you need to change the reward, and you need to make yourself a bigger, better offer. Can you substitute curiosity about how you are feeling and how that changes moment to moment for your craving? Mindfulness can help you bring your attention to the present without being judgmental.

To learn more about how to manage anxiety, you may wish to visit the website UnwindingAnxiety.com. Dr. Brewer’s app for people with disordered eating is Eat Right Now. And you’ll find more evidence-based resources at JudsonBrewer.com.

This Week’s Guest:

Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, is an internationally known thought leader in the field of habit change and the “science of self-mastery.” His 20 years of experience with mindfulness training enhanced his scientific research. He is the Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and associate professor of psychiatry at the Medical School.

Dr. Brewer has developed novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including smoking, stress eating, and anxiety (e.g. www.goeatrightnow.com, www.unwindinganxiety.com),   and has studied their underlying brain mechanisms. His work has been featured on “60 Minutes,” at TED.com (4th most viewed talk of 2016 with over 10 million views), in Time magazine, Forbes, NPR and the BBC among others. His website is www.judsonbrewer.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @JudsonBrewer

His book is The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love – Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits. 

Listen to the Podcast:

The podcast of this program will be available the Monday after the broadcast date. The show can be streamed online from this site and podcasts can be downloaded for free. CDs may be purchased at any time after broadcast for $9.99.

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    About the Author
    Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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    Hey Chris – Reminding myself of the consequences – that’s what works for me, as well. My genetics indicate diabetes and heart disease, and I find that being on a plant-based diet really has made a big difference. At age 65, I’m on no meds but I do take a multivitamin and D3 supplement. My parents and siblings have had heart disease and diabetes, and so far I don’t. I want to do all that I can to keep it that way.

    I’ve listened to the podcast several times. I also read Dr. Brewer’s book The Craving Mind. I’m finding many of the things he talks about helpful in my daily life. I hope to look into the Eat Right Now app as soon as we return from vacation. Thanks for another great show!

    Though I didn’t realize it, I believe I unwittingly practiced Mindfulness. I had been drifting along as a pre-diabetic for 7 years. In March 2018, my primary doc was appalled to see my A1c jump from 6.1 to 6.9. She explained that 7.0 is considered uncontrolled diabetes, and insulin would surely be in my immediate future if I kept on this path.

    In my mind I saw all the negative side effects of taking insulin, and I was downright frightened by the mental video. I immediately started checking my glucose 4 times a day in earnest and keeping a daily log of food, activities, ailments and meds. 3 months later my A1c was 5.8 and another 3 months down the road saw my A1c drop to a very normal 5.4. I still maintain my glucose checks (2-4x daily) and my daily log. Without trying, I lost 20 lbs during those 6 months just by seeing what foods elevated my glucose and eliminating or decreasing my consumption of those culprit foods. Whenever I crave a pasta entree on a menu, I think about having to see an extremely elevated glucose reading in only 2 hours after eating it, and I change my order. I don’t like seeing glucose readings over 140 after meals.

    Mindfulness is the new psychobabble, unlike the 1980’s with “I’m OK You’re OK.” Drs. are touting this method as the silver bullet to get rid of pain, addiction, and a host of other things.

    Not everyone is the same, and many of us don’t have problems that can be solved by a collective mindfulness practice. In fact, many of us truly suffer from organic pain, some from addiction, that is treatable only through in-patient substance abuse training, as well as life-long assistance from group discussions regarding a specific addiction, or re-entering a treatment facility. There is no easy fix, and practicing mindfulness has been a big zero in my world. Meditation, yes, mindfulness, no.

    It was interesting to hear Joe and Terry describe how they feel physically when they are craving something. When I am craving chocolate I feel a “lacking,” like something is missing. When I then eat chocolate, my body feels complete. Other listeners?

    Mindfulness:
    The moderator shared that his mind was going to and fro attempting meditation. Students come to me and say the same including “I can’t meditate.” When they tell me their mind is going to and fro I say “you are meditating.” Meditation is an exercise of mindfulness. ‘Seeing’ your mind go to and fro is awareness. The mind cannot be forced into stillness. It can only be TAMED by observing its to and fro and mindfully letting go. Let thoughts go by without clinging, like waves passing by, like a river’s flo. Allow the thought to come and go. In time the mind calms.

    No master will ever teach that stillness means “without thoughts.” That’s silly.
    However, we can become more and more PRESENT through mindfulness. Imagine a lake during a storm. Muddy, wavy. Slowly the lake settles into clarity after a while. But there is always movement.
    We can all learn gently to be more and more present through exercising mindfulness. For a day, simply observe every texture as you take each bite of food. Or be aware of every instance when you go through a doorway for a day. These are meditative exercises of mindfulness to be more aware and present.

    Always remember that the mind is like a wild monkey. You can only tame it effectively. Forcing it into stillness is not natural and is a time bomb.

    My radio is my alarm in the morning, and today I woke up hearing this show. ALL of it pertains to me! I JUMPED out of bed and ran to my computer to look it all up. I will be studying deeper, be sure of that.
    Thanks for a good show.

    Fear of falling is common among older people. Can mindfulness or hypnosis help to alleviate it?

    Dear Vivian, yes to your question. When the person learns to walk ‘staying present’ and relaxed, not rushing forward in movement or thoughts, chances of falling are reduced tremendously. Furthermore, the person should eliminate all walks in darkness (like going to bathroom at night.) Always put on a light and wait a second while sitting on side of bed. Also the person has to learn not to step ‘backwards’. Many times we forget possible mini-objects we could step on and lose balance. It is OK to take time and walk relaxed from point A to B.

    Many times the older person’s mind is younger than the eyes’ coordination and feet. So relax, and move forward not fearfully but PRESENT. Falls usually happen when the mind rushes forward.

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