How to stop cravings with Tetris (don’t think of a pink elephant)

Whether it’s porn, social media FOMO, an andrenalinizing video game, (or sugar?) how to stop cravings comes down to two components.

  • The visual
  • The physical

So in this post, I’ll give you science-backed methods to redirect lightning. Yes, including Tetris.

"You don't have to pay attention to the signals from your nerves. You can choose to pay attention to anything you want."
- Jane McGonigal, Superbetter, pg 32

(Disclosure: I may be slightly compensated if you purchase items I recommend through links on this page.)

A sage takes a lightning bolt from the sky, fluidly circles his arms, and launches it in the other direction. This is how to stop cravings: redirect, not suppress.
© Viacom 2005-2008 (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

Why redirecting lightning works

“Lightning”– let’s say powerful energy– demands release. You can’t hold it in, nor should you.

Instead of letting it consume you or trying to calm it down, channel it into productive ends. Because whether or not you control it, it will discharge. Don’t let it fire toward something you know you’ll later regret.

But focus expends lightning. And no matter at what screen, for what purpose, you stare with quiet breath in rapturous anticipation, your world shrinks, like shining a spotlight.

Psychologists call this the attention spotlight.

Attention spotlight: when on a phone, your brain shines a light on it and the world around you basically disappears. When off your phone, you notice nature.
Hopefully, you’re not combining these two activities.

When you focus in this way, everything outside the spotlight ceases to exist. Useful if you’re stalking prey, but not when you open multiple tabs of prey as you search for the best kill for hours, everything slowly becoming less effective.

But good news! You can swing that spotlight wherever you want.

In the same way I found that work prevents self-loathing by distracting me from crippling beliefs, action helps slow or stop addictive thoughts.

The key is distraction, not suppression.

"Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways."
- Sigmund Freud

How to stop cravings with distraction

Quick, don’t think of a pink elephant!

…you probably just did.

That’s because when you try to suppress thoughts, you’re putting up wanted posters in your mind with a picture of the thing you don’t want to think about. And referencing it again and again: “here’s what not to think about.”

How to stop cravings: don't think of a pink elephant.
"...attempted thought suppression has paradoxical effects as a self-control strategy, perhaps even producing the very obsession or preoccupation that it is directed against." - Wegner et al, "Paradoxical Effects of Thought Supression," 1987

Suppression doesn’t work. But distraction does, especially if it creates Flow.

(By the way, Flow is psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s coined term for the the state of being “in the zone.” In other words, your brain, eyes, and hands are engaged intently with something, and your theta brainwaves take over.)

Jameson et al tested this distraction versus suppression idea in their research. They told participants to put their left hand in a bowl of icewater for as long as they could while they played a Wii game, and compared their self-reported pain, anxiety, and enjoyment scores against a group who watched TV instead.

And they found that the active distraction group scored higher on enjoyment and lower on pain and anxiety. They FELT their nerve signals less!

The active component was crucial: they were in Flow with their bodies and minds.

Meanwhile, other scientists have proven that by paying attention to your pain, you magnify its severity. Pain is partly psychological.

So distraction is great for acute psychosomatic cravings! When your body feels the craving, distract it with something that engages its entirety.

"The key is simply to realize that you are in charge of your cognitive resources. If you don't want your brain to pay attention to pain signals, give it something else to pay attention to instead." - Jane McGonigal, Superbetter, pg. 32 again

Examples of flow-generating activities

  • Exercise / pushups / yoga
  • Vigorous dancing
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Urge surfing
  • even simple breathwork (book coming soon)
  • Tetris! (as proven by Holmes et al in several PTSD experiments)
  • any small Breakout clone or spaceship shooter
  • …but I’m gonna guess not solitaire
How to stop cravings by using that energy for piano. Works for me.
Works for me.

This covers both the visual and the physical, but there are still a few things to consider.

Caution for video game addicts

Don’t use this as an excuse to go your favorite addictive video game and get stuck there. For this to work, the game has to:

  • start up as soon as possible (hence why my Tetris link starts automatically)
  • consume all your visual, manual, and cognitive attention

On a related note, I left Candy Crush Saga off this list. That’s even though it’s been clinically proven, like Tetris, to distract and reduce akrasia. (Fancy Greek word meaning a lack of self-control caused by temporary opinion breakdown)

If video game addiction afflicts you, find something physical.

FOMO-induced anxiety and Flow

Notice I said “consumes your visual… attention.” As I showed in Craving is something you actively do, thinking about the object of your desire generates dopamine and small bits of adrenaline in your brain.

Anticipation is a chemical reality. So don’t hype it up. If you want to practice how to stop cravings, then you have to learn they’re partly visual, just like pain.

Psychologists call it cognitive absorption, and to reference Flow again, you must choose an active activity. Listening to music or watching funny animal videos can help take your mind off problems, but they don’t induce Flow. And Flow is the highest possible level of cognitive absorption. You want Flow.

(There are many more ways to generate Flow that I won’t cover in this article. I suggest reading Csíkszentmihályi’s book on it to find an easy one for you if you’re stuck.)

Boy stares intently at phone screen close to face. (Cognitive absorption)
Cognitive absorption

…but video games give the highest Flow. They lowered preoperative anxiety in pediatric outpatients, reduced biochemical stress and anxiety among the armed forces, and increased alpha brain wave activity among those with clinical anxiety or depression (alpha being the relaxation waves).

Bottom line, Flow-inducing video games unblock cortisol stress chunks, relax your brain waves, and increase heart-rate variability: the speed at which you can calm down.

When in Flow, you are in full control of your attention spotlight.

Monsters of stress and anxiety exist outside your attention spotlight when you play an absorbing game.

And since visualizing your vice, especially how good you think it’ll be (it won’t be that good), is one of the biggest causes of a relapse, you want to steer that spotlight away.

Hence why, on a side note, the third affirmation of The EasyPeasy Way to Quit Porn is “bye bye thoughts, bye bye cravings. Oh, there go my urges.”

Counterpoint: how to stop cravings long-term

According to Sally Winston and Martin Seif’s book Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts,

"When you try to distract yourself from thoughts, you are reinforcing the idea that you need to keep away from them. That implies that they are somehow dangerous and might lead to something no good. That is the wrong way to look at them."

And

"Furthermore, when you distract yourself, although it may help temporarily, you devote a portion of your mind to barring the door and scanning the mind to make sure they don't return. And it is the high-alert, internal monitor that actually invites them back."

So remember three things about this Tetris method:

  • These are battle strategies, not war strategies.
  • Triggers and cravings are harmless if you tame their lightning. Don’t try to avoid them.
  • As I mentioned in Stop calling it addiction, monsterifying a bad habit into an addiction gives it added power over you. It seems scarier, stronger. This puts you on high-alert mode, like the kind Winston and Seif mentioned, and makes you more anxious, sensitive, and fragile.

If you want to craft good monsters, weak but specialized ones that make compulsions seem and be weaker, sign up for my mailing list, because this is the focus of my second upcoming ebook, Monstercrafting.

Lightning cracks beside you with these how to stop cravings methods. Redirect, not absorb.

Takeaways: how to stop cravings with Tetris

  • Shift your attention spotlight and subvert the visual and physical aspects of cravings with a video game.
  • It must put you in Flow– completely absorbed brain and body– and must be quick to load.
  • Try something physical if you don’t think you can stop easily.
  • Research has proven casual games effective against anxiety, depression, PTSD, and pain, but addiction is a bespoke hydra. Everyone’s “game treatment plan” is different.

Now get out there and don’t think of a pink elephant!

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