Cravings are a problem for many of us who overeat
Do you have a particular food nemesis? Something that destroys your self-discipline when it’s put in front of you (or even if it fleetingly enters your mind)? Craving a particular food can cause trouble when it hijacks your attention and you can’t rest until you’ve found it, and then you can’t stop eating it!
You can learn to overcome cravings!
Help is at hand. There are different approaches to dealing with cravings and in this article I’ll look at what’s happening in our minds when we crave. I’ll explain how cravings take hold in your mind and how you can use simple techniques to help steer your mind away from the craved-for-food so you can get on with your day without caving in.
Imaginary Relish and Exquisite Torture
This was the title of an article1 by Psychology Professor David Kavanagh and colleagues about craving. They describe how we find ourselves triggered by the thought or sight of something we know we love, and then our conscious mind starts adding to the idea as our desire for the thing grows. Professor Kavanagh calls this “Elaborated Intrusion” to reflect both the initial automatic triggering (unconscious intrusion) and the subsequent conscious processing (the elaboration).
The initial trigger – he uses the example of someone mentioning drinking a cup of excellent coffee on a sidewalk café – sets off automatic associations which produce intrusive thoughts about the coffee. If you don’t like coffee this is where your mental processing of hearing about the coffee is likely to end and you’ll get on with your day. But if you’re hooked on the stuff, that’s different…
Intrusive thoughts aren’t under conscious control, but once they arrive in awareness they activate a complex of associations, thoughts, feelings and anticipations and our conscious mind goes to work organising all of these reactions.
Kavanagh talks about how this dual-process (automatic triggering of intrusive thoughts followed by conscious elaboration) may explain cravings. As our thinking about the coffee (or whatever) becomes increasingly elaborated and we remember the last time we enjoyed a fabulous coffee and imagine how nice the next one will taste, we construct an almost life-like image of it. These sensory images can be vivid and richly textured, and what may happen now is that you start to become aware of the fact that you are not drinking the fabulous coffee right now – in fact you feel you’re in a state of deprivation when your brain computes the pleasure it could get if it could score a cup right now against how it feels not to have it.
Now, in your “deprived” state, what you’re most aware of is the not-having of the coffee. And your mind turns to how to get one.
I’ve gone with the coffee example because it’s what Kavanagh uses, though if you’re stuck in the house with no espresso machine and unable to get to a café, you may simply have to give up the caffeine fixation and move on. But if you replace “coffee” with your favourite treat – say chocolate – and you have it in the house, your brain’s going to be pressurising you to go to the pantry, knowing that the answer to this craving-state is merely metres away.
Kavanagh notes that it’s not just a chance mention that can trigger intrusive thoughts of a specific food. It can be an internal state (eg low mood) if you’ve previously eaten chocolate to lift your mood.
So how can you stop the intrusive thoughts in the first place, and the elaboration that follows? The first thing to say is that attempting to suppress thoughts of any sort actually makes those thoughts more rather than less likely to re-occur. So deliberately trying to stop yourself thinking of your most-craved food won’t work. What can work however is using visual imagery to help your mind move to a different point of view or a different “place”.
This is because our Working Memory (the brain’s available current workspace) has only limited capacity and if we engage in a different mental task deliberately, we can disrupt the craving sequence. In theory, any distracting mental activity could have this helpful effect, but a recent study by Schumacher and colleagues2 offers two specific solutions. We’ll come to these in a moment.
Is this a craving or am I actually hungry?
Good question! If you are actually hungry then it’s time to eat, but we often get cravings when we’re not at all hungry.
To work out whether you are actually hungry, consult your gut to see where you are on the Appetite Pendulum™. If you aren’t definitely hungry (-3) then it’s not time to eat. With Appetite Retraining, when you are definitely hungry, you tune in to your gut to discern what it is you actually have an appetite for right now. If that’s your favourite treat, you’ll be able to enjoy it using your gut to tell you when you’ve had just enough.
If it’s a craving you have right now, the chances are the food is something that really pushes the pleasure buttons in your brain. In which case, back to the two suggestions – cognitive defusion and guided imagery.
What your mind can do instead of feeding the craving
- Cognitive Defusion
The first relates to the first of Kavanagh’s two stages – the intrusive thoughts about the coffee. Intrusive thoughts become embellished when we get drawn in and react to them as if they have some sort of reality. We grab on to the thought of the coffee and start elaborating it – imagining drinking it, feeling the weight of the cup in our hands, the aroma of the beans, the buzz in our mouth from the caffeine. But if we instead use Cognitive Defusion to distance ourselves from those initial thoughts and see them for what they are – merely thoughts – we can shift our attention away before it elaborates it any further and move on, no longer fuelling the craving. Here is Jon Kabat-Zinn talking about thoughts as bubbles, which is one way of distancing ourselves from the content of a thought and letting it pass. You might find other videos to help you observe your ‘craving’ thoughts when they appear if you google “Mindfulness Cognitive Defusion”. Your job is to see the thoughts of the coffee as the bubbles and let them go “poof” as he puts it! In a few short minutes your attention has moved and the craving has passed. At this point, seize the opportunity to distract yourself with a non-food activity.
- Guided Imagery
The second alternative is to use guided imagery. A vivid calming scene, somewhere in nature can be very effective in drawing your attention away from elaborating on the imagery of the coffee. As you focus on creating this image, use all your senses. There are loads of these exercises on the internet. Here’s one I came across on youtube just by googling “Guided Imagery”. This one uses a waterfall, but any will do. The most useful ones may be the ones that last only a few minutes. You don’t need to spend ages on this.
Research findings are encouraging
Schumacher’s study found that craving frequency and the amount of craving-related calorie intake went down whether people used Cognitive Defusion or Guided Imagery.
Recently Kavanagh and colleagues3 have tested out a more sophisticated imagery approach, “Functional Imagery Training” which helps people to enhance their motivation to change and to increase their self-belief by mentally rehearsing successes, and recently published very positive results using this approach.
Your first step
To get started, find a visualisation that you like – either Cognitive Defusion or Guided Imagery – you may not need both. Download it on to your phone or other device so you can easily reach it when a craving starts. When that does happen, move away from anything that is triggering the craving, put the visualisation on and follow the instructions. You’ll probably only need to follow the instructions a few times. These things are so simple that they are easy to recall. But if you prefer, you can keep using the recording whenever a craving strikes.
- Kavanagh, DJ , Andrade, J and May, J (2005) Imaginary relish and Exquisite Torture. Psychological Review, 112 : 446-67
- Schumacher, S, Kemps, E and Tiggemann, M (2018) Cognitive Defusion and Guided Imagery tasks reduce naturalistic food cravings and consumption. Appetite, 127 : 393-9
- Solbrig, L et al (2018) Functional Imagery Training versus Motivational Interviewing for Weight Loss. Int. Journal of Obesity, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41366-018-0122-1
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