The 'doing' of habit change

By Dr. Gus Vickery - Vickery Family Medicine | Jan 06, 2017
Photo by: File photo

This time of year people are really looking at how to change their habits and improve one's health. Often times, they try to revert behaviors. Why are these so hard? Neuroscience has a lot to say about this, but more specifically,  Dr. Gus Vickery's book "The Payoff: Choosing Better Health — You Can Do it!" offers some insight.

Chapter five in the book offers a very straightforward way to have mastery of your cravings. Our self control is compromised whenever we have high levels of stress. In fact, stress and cravings go hand in hand and there's a reason why when we're stressed we give in to cravings more.

Dopamine is a craving hormone. We feel powerful cravings for substances and activities that are associated with the release of dopamine. But dopamine-fueled cravings tend not to bring any real satisfaction. And not only do we fail to experience real pleasure from them, they actually tend to be associated with even greater stress. But when we experience a dopamine-fueled craving, we often can’t control ourselves.

Though we won’t get into the details of brain chemistry, research by the American Psychological Association has shown which specific activities are associated with dopamine-fueled cravings, greater stress, and no real satisfaction.

Activities associated with the anticipation of pleasure, but no genuine pleasure at all:

  • binge eating;
  • drinking;
  • shopping;
  • smoking;
  • watching television;
  • surfing the web;
  • playing video games
  • gambling.

Though we tend to experience overpowering cravings for these things, these activities don’t translate into any real satisfaction. These activities have also been found to be the least effective for coping with stress—even as these are precisely the activities we tend to pursue when we are stressed, in part because the dopamine-fueled craving is powerful, and in part because our self-control is compromised. And the release of hormones associated with these cravings then facilitates still higher levels of stress—and, very often, shame and guilt, too.

There’s a vicious cycle at work here. When we feel stressed, that makes us fearful, and that turns off our higher mind. At the same time, we feel a craving for unhealthy behaviors. Our self-control is inhibited, so we cave in to those cravings. Afterward, we feel guilty for doing so, which makes us feel even more stressed. Then the cycle repeats. And the more you engage in this cycle, the more completely your higher mind switches off and the more completely you’ll feel controlled by the cravings.

But the American Psychological Association has also studied which activities offer genuine satisfaction and a pathway to a sustained sense of well being.

Activities associated with sustained improvements in long-term well being:

  • meditation;
  • exercise or playing sports;
  • sleep;
  • relaxation (not turning on the television, but simply relaxing and letting your brain rest);
  • attending religious ceremonies;
  • praying;
  • reading;
  • listening to music;
  • doing yoga;
  • engaging in creative hobbies; and
  • spending time with loved ones.

According to the research, these activities prompt restorative responses in the body and slow down the production of stress hormones. And that is powerful good news: Now that you understand a bit about what’s happening in your brain, you can do something about it.

Doing: The trick to overpowering your cravings

By their very nature, cravings are extremely hard to resist. When the dopamine transmitter is activated, there's a surge of adrenaline, and it often feels exciting. In that moment, the power of the craving, and the anticipation of having it satisfied, seems more pleasurable than almost anything else—and certainly more pleasurable than, for instance, meditating or exercising. What’s more, because our stress response has been activated, our higher mind has turned off. That’s the part of the brain that could step out of the situation and decide, for instance, that drinking or binge eating or watching television may not be the best course of action. After all, your higher mind is the part of you that knows what you truly desire for yourself: You truly desire health. Yet, in the moment of the craving, with your higher mind switched off, that larger desire seems secondary to the anticipated pleasure of giving in to the craving.

So here’s a powerful, evidence-based approach to addressing the problem.

The next time you feel yourself beginning to crave a substance or activity that you know is unhealthy—whether it’s junk food or alcohol or television or something else—wait 10 minutes. And in those 10 minutes, select an activity from the second list, above, whether it’s going for a walk or talking to a loved one or just relaxing quietly. Research suggests that if you engage in one of these healthy activities for 10 minutes or more instead of giving in to a craving, then, more often than not, the craving will dissipate. And in that time you will have taken two important steps toward better health: The first step was to resist your craving, and the second was to engage in a positive activity that contributes to your long-term health.

When you start to feel a craving:

  1. Look at the clock. Tell yourself that you only have to wait 10 minutes before having the thing that you’re craving.
  2. Choose a healthy activity from the second list, above. Engage in that activity for at least 10 minutes.
  3. Take a minute to assess how you’re feeling in body and mind. Are you still experiencing the craving? Has it gotten weaker? Consider continuing the healthy activity you’ve started rather than giving in to the craving. Can you do it?

Interestingly, there's a lot of evidence to show that when people pay close attention to how they’re feeling during a craving, the craving actually starts to dissolve. That is, just paying attention and becoming aware of what you’re feeling is a lot of the battle.

Slowing down and becoming aware of what’s happening will also train your brain in new habits and patterns. Right now your brain may be accustomed to feeling the surge of hormones associated with binging. Simply slowing down and paying attention to what you’re doing, and how it feels, reduces the hormones and stress associated with craving and binging. It also helps to foster long-term resilience and self-control. As you start to slow down and delay that indulgence, you actually teach your brain to adjust its expectations, so that when a craving comes on it’s no longer such an intense surge of hormones. That, in turn, allows your higher brain to switch on again. And that allows you to consider and then pursue what you truly want for yourself.

The above text is an excerpt from a book titled "The Payoff: Choosing Better Health — You Can Do it!" By Dr. Gus Vickery