Use Your Mind to Change Your Brain

How to overcome self-defeating thoughts and actions

Tips to Resist Temptation

Teaching Your Brain to Say No!

If we've learned nothing else from the recent spate of political indiscretions, we know this: resisting temptation can be extremely challenging. None of us is a stranger to temptation, but nothing makes it clearer how powerful craving and desire can be than when you watch a person's life begin to unravel because he/she gave in.

For me, chocolate is my Achilles heel. I know, not nearly as exciting or scandalous, but it still is a problem sometimes. What I love about chocolate is it makes me feel so good and happy. The world could be ending, but if I have chocolate, all is fine. Well, at least temporarily. After the mini-euphoria wears off, I start to lament the fact that I ate it - this means I'm going to have to workout longer or eat less to make up for the fact that I had this sumptuous pick-me-up. I tell myself if I only do it once in a while, no problem. But, it doesn't work out that way, does it?

Instead, one day turns into two, then three... I can justify it for a while, but soon I am eating some yummy chocolate snack almost every day. I crave it. I want it even though I know it's not good for me in the long-term to keep doing this. Granted, I know how the body and brain work. This isn't rocket science, but it sure feels like it some days. I know you maintain your weight when your calories eaten = calories burned. If you eat more than what you burn, you gain weight. If you eat less, you lose. It really is that simple on a biological level.  But, it's incredibly hard to apply and achieve.

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Blame It on the Brain?

The reason I struggle with this isn't actually my fault - it's my brain's. Sort of. In truth, we are both culpable but for different reasons. Here's why.

Every time I eat chocolate, I teach my brain that this is an important action - something to pay attention to and replicate. If I do this once in a while, my brain will not really take notice and I won't crave chocolate. However, if I repeat this action, even for just a few days in a row, my brain will begin to ramp up cravings for chocolate. As this happens, the refrain running wildly through my brain is "chocolate, chocolate, chocolate!" and I experience this visceral urge to eat some chocolate now. What's worse, the more chocolate I eat, the more frequent and intense the cravings become. As time goes on, my brain begins making eating chocolate a priority and I find that I am craving it day and night.

It seems pretty unfair. Enjoy a snack with any regularity and your brain takes over and makes you crave it all the more. Clearly, from an evolutionary sense, it makes sense why my brain would do this. Pleasurable things are prioritized because they keep us alive, and eating is no exception. It's an instinctual drive, mediated by the hypothalamus and other parts of the brain. Darwin would be pleased at what my brain's doing. But, I am not. From the standpoint of a woman trying to moderately enjoy some chocolate, it's a mean trick.

So, what am I to do? Clearly, I have to teach my brain what's really important to me so that it can help, rather than hinder, me. And, it's not enough for me to want it to be different; I have to actually act differently. The only way my brain will change how it responds, and which cravings it generates, is based on what I do - and, more specifically, how I focus my attention.

Changing My Brain ... and Cravings

Fortunately, I already know how to change my brain. I've done it before and I can do it again. All I have to do is follow the Four Steps that my mentor and I developed and that are outlined in our new book You Are Not Your Brain. Sounds simple, but I know from experience that it isn't. In truth, it takes dedication and effort - as well as time. This is where my motivation and intention for things to be different truly comes in.

How do I use the Four Steps with chocolate or other desirable snacks? I start by being more aware of my cravings, urges and thoughts. I use Step 1: Relabel to make mental notes. I literally say to myself, "Oh, there's that craving for chocolate again." I notice and investigate the craving, but do not give into it. I just let it be there, taunting me, but don't give it the time of day. Then, I Reframe (Step 2) the experience by reminding myself that my brain is generating this desire for chocolate, not me. Sure, I started the process by responding to fatigue, boredom or stress by eating chocolate a few days in a row, but now my brain has taken over. My goal at this point is to change my perception of the importance of this unhelpful brain urge and move on.

Rather than giving in, I use Step 3: Refocus and choose to do something that is healthier for me. If I truly am hungry and have not eaten, I will eat something less desirable, but filling and healthy. If I am not hungry, I will go take a walk, call a friend, work on a project or do something else that's fun. As the craving continues trying to tempt me, I use Step 4: Revalue to remind myself that this is just the feeling of craving. I need to realize that this craving does not define me - it is not something I have to pay attention to or prioritize. In fact, I can let it be there and move on with my day without giving in.

Other ways I deal with cravings include:

  • Limit Access: Whenever possible, I keep the foods I crave out of the house! I've learned from experience that if chocolate or other seemingly irresistable snacks are not easily accessible, I likely will not go to great lengths to procure them.
  • Use the 15-Minute Rule: Commit to not giving in for 15 minutes. See if the craving is still there 15 minutes later. If it is, I try to wait another 15 minutes. I remind myself that the craving will pass.
  • Stop and Reflect Before Responding: I ask myself, what am I about to do and why? Is eating this right now really going to serve some purpose and help me, or will I regret it later?
  • Remember the Biology: I remind myself that each time I eat chocolate, I just make the brain circuitry stronger and more intense... thereby ensuring that future cravings will be harder to resist.

Increasing my awareness of my urges and cravings and refusing to give into them is the key to changing my behavior - and ultimately my brain. What I've found is that using the Four Steps for a few days often breaks the cycle and decreases my cravings. (Note: This is because the behavior is not strongly engrained in my brain yet. If I had been eating chocolate for a longer period of time or it was strongly associated with specific stressors, then the behavior would be more powerfully wired into my brain and take more time to change).

The best part of the Four Steps is that you can use it for all kinds of temptations - not just food. In fact, any behavior that is pleasurable, decreases anxiety, dissolves stress, alleviates boredom or has simply been wired in by rote repetition can be tackled with the Four Steps, if you see it as a problem and want to change how you automatically act. The bigger challenge, once you have mastered the Four Steps, is keeping it up - to diligently use the Four Steps even when you don't need to so that you keep your brain wired and trained the way you want it to be.

Rebecca Gladding, M.D., is co-author of You Are Not Your Brain, a clinical instructor and attending psychiatrist at UCLA. more...

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