Craving is a verb.
And triggers are nothing to be afraid of, when you redirect their lightning.
In this article, learn the science of craving and how to fight it.
In my article on overconsumption, I said “Anticipation can feel as good as the real thing. I even hypothesize that ‘expected reward’ is the same as “craving.”
Myself, I noticed lately that I was pedestalizing the reward. It motivated me to be more than a pleasure zombie, but the initial thrill faded and I had no vigorous desire to pursue my weekly goals anymore. After that, I craved the grand prize so much that, in a frenzy, I sidestepped my feeble blocker (porn is my bad habit).
That’s when I realized craving is something you actively do. If I had focused my thoughts elsewhere instead of whipping them up, I could have prevented a relapse.
But don’t take my word for it.
Former heroin and cocaine “addict” (his quotes) Steven Slate insists that “addiction is not a disease.”
He says that “We feel the need to use heavily only because we see the drugs as having some sort of fantastic powers that we need to function and feel good. When coupled with the view that there is nothing better available to us, heavy use feels like a necessity. “
Now, I won’t begin to compare smartphone addiction to traditional drug addiction.
But regardless of your habit, if you feel powerless to change, you’re shooting yourself in the foot before you run a marathon. (Assuming you do.) You might struggle out a few steps, but what’s the point? You already decided the outcome in your head.
On the other hand, Albert Bandura’s research on self-efficacy (belief in your power to cause change) says that people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors when they feel confident in their capabilities to successfully carry out those behaviors.
Let’s look at reward prediction error again.
The Pavlovian model goes Cue -> Reward the first time around. Then it goes Cue -> Expectation -> Reward or not. You salivate at the sound of a dinner bell even if you don’t get any food after hearing it.
But Yael Niv in a Nature journal article found you stockpile dopamine (the anticipation chemical) chunk-by-chunk when you go through the motions to set up your reward.
And although scientists can’t yet read our thoughts, I’d bet that anticipation, which you create by your thoughts, leads to craving.
What is craving?
Laypeople describe a craving as an intense desire to consume something. Some say the desire is your body telling you you’re lacking some nutrient. But I don’t think your brain works like your stomach.
Scientists have trouble defining it, but in general, a craving has these elements:
- a physical element that distinguishes it from just a want
- persistence that makes it difficult to fight
- emotional desire that threatens to override logic
- past good experiences, whether chemical, emotional, or both, that drive desire
…if not more. (I’m not a scientist.)
This is due to burnt-out dopamine pathways in your brain. Like with sugar or any superstimulus, after awhile, the law of marginal utility applies. Whatever you’re doing doesn’t release as much feel-good juice.
Addiction happens, though, when despite the lack of pleasure a person uses anyway.
Adam Alter in Irresistible claims people fill an emotional hole or psychological need with drugs. In my case, smiling naked women gave me self-esteem, which I still don’t understand. If you don’t get that need met in other ways, and your drug is a superstimulus, why do anything else?
You crave it because nothing else can comparably fill that hole.
One clarification, though: craving isn’t the same as liking. You might not like something, but you feel you “need” it.
And there’s the key word: feel.
Your logical brain can overcome your emotional brain. But if your thoughts hype up the reward, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
Can craving come only from thoughts?
I’m not an addiction expert. I write based on my experiences and those of others. But in my experience, here’s how it goes:
Without an excuse, or a justification, you won’t act. “Just one can’t hurt.” “Just one more.” “This’ll be good, not bad like those other times.”
You don’t even have to use your inner voice. For me, the assumptions are automatic.
In my case, it’s initial strong heartbeat -> shallow breathing + rapid heartbeat -> “It’ll be good” -> click. And sometimes I can bypass the craving: initial heartbeat -> curiosity -> click. Sometimes it can happen in two seconds.
The simple but not easy workaround is this:
And the energy from that craving compounds as your brain whines and commands you to give it what it wants. You have to either release it in a healthy alternative or sit with it and wait for it to pass. Because it will pass.
The worst thing you can do, besides give in, is try to fight it by not thinking about it. That’s like not thinking about a polar bear after I just told you not to.
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky
So no, I don’t think craving comes from thoughts alone. There’s often a physical component, and I suggest you discover yours: rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, shallow breathing, even boredom. Then when they arise, stay present and “urge surf.”
(And although I’d like to go into mission-oriented temperence, that’s outside the scope of this article. I can tell you, though, it’s never as good as you think it’ll be. In scientific terms, that’s known as outcome expectancy.)
What is urge surfing? How can it help stop craving?
Let’s assume some strong emotion or craving of yours is a wave, and you’re a surfer.
No surfer attacks the wave head-on. They don’t fight it. They let it carry them to a new destination by balancing through its momentum.
When your willpower is low, you’re too tired for your inner voice, or you REALLY want it… ride the wave.
Add this link to a University of Washington audio exercise– “Urge Surfing”– to your toolbar or home screen. Make sure it’s easy to find so you don’t forget to listen to it when you have a huge urge.
Craving is powerful. When your brain craves something, it throws a temper tantrum: “But I want it NOW!“
So here’s my simple and easy solution:
- Install a foolproof blocker like Pluckeye (review coming soon) or Cold Turkey
or 2. sit on your hands and urge surf. (I’ll write a huge pillar page on urge surfing soon!)
(Pluckeye’s rave reviews center around its unique “delay” feature: it blocks questionable sites like social media, but only for 10 minutes or an hour after you first access the site. There’s something about waiting…)
I’ve tried to fight cravings for years. You can’t win every time. If you can’t distance yourself from the thing you want, if you can get it unblocked at any time, if you’re too tired and don’t want to fight it, you will lose. So use the energy from your craving (anticipation) and urge surf.
Feel your feelings– don’t run away or try to fight them! That’s what got you hooked in the first place, and you’re still filling that hole!
No matter how bad it gets, and I mean that!, remember…
Don’t hype it up. It’s never as good as you think it’ll be.