The Surprising Power of an Unscratched Itch

How a simple exercise can yield surprisingly significant results.

Posted Oct 30, 2017

It’s no secret: I’m a big enthusiast of meditation and mindfulness. I practice them myself, implement them in my work with clients, write about them regularly, and present on them every chance I get. My devotion to these practices runs deep, and the primary reason for it is this: mindfulness and meditation allow us to harness the power of neuroplasticity. That’s a fancy term used to refer to the brain’s remarkable ability to change according to how it’s used. By engaging in meditation and mindfulness, we help our brains create new neural connections that can meaningfully impact our lives.

When we meditate or practice mindfulness, we focus our attention in particular ways. We connect with our experience in the moment and practice bringing ourselves back whenever we get distracted or drift away. As it turns out, this simple (though challenging) practice serves as a form of training that reshapes and reprograms our brains. The more we practice, the more we strengthen the neural pathways associated with focused attention. In this way, meditation and mindfulness work like brain push-ups; the more we practice, the more we condition the muscle of our attention so that it serves us when we need it.

One of the biggest benefits of activating neuroplasticity through meditation and mindfulness is an increased capacity for self-control. As it turns out, self-control is a pretty useful ability that’s associated with physical health, goal attainment, healthy relationships, and career success. Although some people might naturally have an easier time with it than others, neuroplasticity makes it possible for us to deliberately improve our self-control through practice. And there’s one particular way to practice it that can be surprisingly effective: letting an itch go unscratched.

Yep, you read that right. The simple exercise of feeling an itch and refraining from scratching it can yield profound results. I regularly facilitate mindfulness-based group therapy sessions with individuals working to overcome substance addictions. In a recent group, I spoke to the clients about the power of resisting an itch, and I guided them through a meditation that allowed them to connect with their bodies and notice the sensations they were experiencing in the moment. A week later, one of the clients in the group shared with us his experience of putting this into practice. He said, “The other morning I felt an inch in the back of my leg when I was making my coffee, and I remembered what we talked about in the group. So I practiced letting myself just have the itch, instead of scratching it right away like I usually do. It was a weird feeling, because when I paid attention to the itch, I felt things I don’t think I’ve ever felt before. And the craziest thing is that after a few seconds, the itch just went away on its own.”

Marveling at his own exercise in self-control, my client went on to say this: “When the itch went away, it made me think about all the times I’ve drank or gotten high because of something painful I was going through that I didn’t think I could deal with. I think if I can practice this with my body, I can probably practice it with other things, too.” This guy was on to something, and I was delighted to watch those lightbulbs go off as he discovered the power of practice and the profound implications of simple exercises like letting itches go unscratched.

You see, the cool thing about neuroplasticity is that the mental muscles we condition through practice get strengthened in ways that have wide-ranging applicability. The attention and endurance involved in letting an uncomfortable sensation like an itch subside on its own, without reacting to it, can be utilized in many other significant ways. It can help us overcome the impulse to lash out at a loved one and say things we don’t mean. It can help us follow through with our commitments and accomplish our goals. It can help us manage our time more effectively, resisting the urge to compulsively engage with social media. It can help us cope with painful thoughts and emotions, allowing them to pass without disturbing our peace. In my client’s case, knowing that he could deliberately work this mental muscle meant that he might be able to experience a strong craving to use drugs, but let it pass instead of giving in to it. That possibility had life-changing potential for him; and it all started with a simple unscratched itch.  

Research has made abundantly clear that a regular practice of meditation and mindfulness can change the shape and functioning of the brain, thus fulfilling the promise of neuroplasticity. Simple behavior adjustments can yield profound results, and all it takes is a subtle shift in attention and a commitment to keep practicing.