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.’ 
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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
 Brewer, Judson (2017). The Craving Mind. Yale University Press.