Rehab 4 Addiction

One of the biggest challenges for those in recovery is dealing with cravings. Cravings can happen at any time: when you’re in the shower, when you’re on the bus, even in the middle of a therapy session.

The question of how to deal with cravings has been around for as long as people have been trying to treat addiction. There are many techniques, and some are more effective than others.

In this article, we’re going to talk about a practice called mindfulness. Mindfulness is ‘the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.’ [1]

It is a way of paying more attention to things that we might take for granted. It can be used to take a step back from intense thoughts or feelings.

This is where mindfulness comes into the conversation about cravings. If mindfulness can be used to identify and reject cravings, then it could be a very powerful tool.

How habits are formed

In one of the most influential books on mindfulness and cravings, The Craving Mind, Judson Brewer argues that mindfulness can be used to stop people acting on cravings. [2]

He also provides a theory of how habits are created over time. Habits can be either negative or positive. In Brewer’s theory, the brain is trained through a process of desire, action and reward that leads to addiction.

Here is Brewer’s theory, separated into three stages:

  • Stage 1: First, we see something we want, whether it be food, a cigarette, or any other thing that we find appealing
  • Stage 2: Our brains class this as pleasant or unpleasant. In the case of a cigarette, for example, a smoker would see this as something ‘pleasant’, since nicotine gives those who smoke a ‘kick’. The brain, therefore, forms a craving for the cigarette
  • Stage 3: After fulfilling the craving, the brain makes a positive memory. From this point onwards, thinking of that particular thing – e.g. a cigarette – will be associated with that positive memory. A habit has now been formed

As you can see, Brewer’s theory is a bit like a cycle. It starts with the thought or craving, then the action happens, and finally, the reward kicks in. This creates a link in the brain between the satisfaction of a certain craving and a reward, such as smoking of a cigarette and the dopamine and adrenaline that smoking releases.

Brewer adds that the objects of our desire are always ‘at a remove’. What he means by this is that we don’t crave the thing itself. Instead, we crave a mental image we have of that thing.

This may seem like an unimportant distinction, but Brewer thinks that it holds the key to overcoming cravings.

His theory is that since we are only interacting with our idea of a thing, such as a cigarette, we can stop, take a step back and control that idea before giving in to a craving.

The question is, can mindfulness really use this concept to help people control their cravings?

How to take a step back and conquer your cravings through mindfulness

The metaphor of the satellite navigation system in cars (or ‘satnav’) can help us to understand the mindfulness view of thoughts and desires.

Satnavs are there simply to show drivers where to go. The image of your car driving on a road, presented on a satnav, is not real.

This is analogous to thoughts and cravings. We should see cravings as something like an indication on a satnav, suggesting that we go in a certain direction.

Just as we frequently decide not to go in the direction recommended by our satnavs, we can also decide not to follow our cravings.

That doesn’t mean we should ignore our cravings completely. Cravings tell us about what our body needs: sometimes they can be useful. For instance, if you’re craving alcohol, it might be because you’re thirsty, or stressed, or depressed. It can be helpful to work out why you’re craving something, rather than just dismissing your craving immediately.

Using the satnav analogy, here is a step-by-step process for recognising and acting on your cravings.

This technique is to be used when you are experiencing a craving.

  • Step 1: Get comfy. It doesn’t matter what position you’re in, just make sure that you feel comfortable. Start to listen to your breaths
  • Step 2: Pay more attention to your breathing. Feel the air rushing into your lungs, then slowly push it out again. Relax
  • Step 3: Admit to yourself that you are having a craving. It can be difficult or frustrating to experience cravings, but it happens to everyone. By recognising your craving, you can distance yourself from it. Picture your craving on the satnav. Instead of saying ‘Turn right’, the satnav is telling you to give in to your craving. Remind yourself that the message on your satnav is just a piece of advice; you don’t have to follow it
  • Step 4: Breathe deeply, and try to picture your craving even more clearly. What is it exactly that you want? How would it appear on the satnav? Remember that what you’re craving is just a mental image of a thing – it’s not real
  • Step 5: Now begin to think about what would happen if you always followed your cravings. Would you be able to do the things you enjoy? Would following your cravings all the time bring you lasting happiness?
  • Step 6: Finally, try to make a balanced decision about your craving. What direction will it take you in? If it’s something you really want to do, and it will bring you happiness, then do it. If not, then don’t. You are in control

Following these steps is all about flexibility. Too often we do what our cravings tell us to do without so much as a second thought. You need to give yourself a chance to refuse your craving.

Keeping cravings at bay

Let’s say this process works for you. The question then is: how do I continue to keep cravings at bay?

You can’t stop cravings completely. They will always surprise you by popping up out of nowhere. The trick is to have a habit of dealing with cravings. This allows you to take a step back and view them from an outsider’s perspective.

Dealing with cravings is all about forming strong habits. Mindfulness, when practised regularly, can help those in recovery to do so. If you find that the mindfulness techniques above work for you, keep doing them whenever you get a craving. This will help you to form good mental habits and fend off cravings.

At the start of this article, we talked about Brewer’s theory of how bad habits are formed. First, there is a desire, then an action, then a reward. Perhaps we can use this theory to form good habits.

If you find yourself having a craving, and you manage to spot it and deal with it using these techniques, give yourself a little reward – something positive. This will help your brain to replace bad habits with good ones.

Final thoughts

We hope this article about mindfulness and cravings has given you some new ideas about how to combat cravings. Mindfulness can be a really effective technique, especially when practised regularly.

References

[1] https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness/

[2] Brewer, Judson (2017). The Craving Mind. Yale University Press.

boris

Boris is our editor-in-chief at Rehab 4 Addiction. Boris is an addiction expert with more than 20 years in the field.  His expertise covers a broad of topics relating to addiction, rehab and recovery. Boris is an addiction therapist and assists in the alcohol detox and rehab process. Boris has been featured on a variety of websites, including the BBC, Verywell Mind and Healthline.