Reduce Cravings through Emotional Resilience
Emotional resilience: A powerful tool to reduce cravings, OCD habits and more
Strong emotions are a fact of life as a human. Like it or not, we are emotional beings, driven by parts of the brain that manage emotional processes, memory, habits and more. Although emotions can often feel as overwhelming as ocean waves crashing over you, it is possible to develop your emotional resilience as a powerful life skill. That resilience, in turn, can help you reduce cravings and change other behaviors that have a negative impact on your life.
The brain and cravings
Think about the last time you experienced a strong craving. Perhaps your desire for ice cream (or a cigarette/drug/compulsion) drove you to distraction in that moment. Think about how your body felt as you experienced that craving: Did you feel overwhelmed and a bit out of control?
Studies have shown that food cravings and drug addictive behavior activate the same areas of the brain. One study on food cravings monitored the brain activity of participants who were craving a particular food:
“The MRIs, completed during the induced cravings, showed that the parts of the brain involved in food cravings—the hippocampus, caudate and insula—are identical to those involved in drug addiction. The hippocampus is important for memory, which helps reinforce the reward-seeking behavior that causes us to crave. The caudate also plays a role in these reward mechanisms, and it helps us to form habits, including food-related ones. The insula contributes to the emotional connection between food and cravings.”—Tufts University
In essence, your brain sends out reward-seeking signals that spark your cravings, and we are all susceptible to those signals to varying degrees. In fact, in his book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction,” Dr. Gabor Maté presents a strong case that addiction is not a personal failure or genetic defect, but a result of normal brain functions gone awry. This summary of his book encapsulates his theory:
“[That] the behavioural addictions of society’s more fortunate members – including himself – differ only in degree of severity from the drug habits of his Downtown Eastside patients, and how in reality there is only one addiction process, its core objective being the self-soothing of deep-seated fears and discomforts.”
Take control and reduce cravings
So, mild and severe cravings alike stem from normal processes in the human brain meant to motivate us to seek behavior that sustains life. For some of us, however, the resulting cravings can cause real problems that get in the way of experiencing our lives.
Neuroscientist Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz reminds people that “You Are Not Your Brain” and advocates for the idea that your brain is changeable (known as neuroplasticity). In working with patients who live with obsessive compulsive disorder, he developed a system for changing OCD thoughts and behaviors, known as the Four Steps or the Four Rs.
Schwartz’ four steps can be used as a tool for OCD patients, but can apply to any number of cravings. They are:
- Relabel. When a compulsion or craving thought pops up, take the time to call it what it is. Simply stopping and naming it (“I am having an obsessive thought”) can help you pause and begin to reframe the thought.
- Reattribute. Schwartz advises OCD patients to repeat the phrase, “It’s not me; it’s my OCD” as a first step. Uttering this phrase helps remind you that the craving or compulsion is not a personal failing, but a brain miscue. A false alarm. Don’t attribute your craving to you or any negative thoughts you hold about yourself. It is simply a function of your brain or disorder.
- Refocus. When a craving or obsessive thought occurs, redirect your brain with an activity you enjoy. Take a walk, read a book, pet your dog or make a chopped salad. The key is to delay the thought to take the power out of the craving or urge. Aim for at least 15 minutes of an activity you truly enjoy to help refocus your brain.
- Revalue. The final step is a recognition that your cravings or OCD thoughts are not adding any value to your life. In fact, they are often taking time and emotional energy from the people and things with true value to you. When you begin to focus your thoughts and your energy on what you truly enjoy and value, you can begin to reduce cravings and negative behaviors.
For more on the Four Rs, watch my short video on the subject, “Managing Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior.”
As you take the initial steps to reduce cravings and change behavior, remember that positive change does not happen overnight. Following the Four Rs and refocusing your brain takes practice. If you experience a setback along the way, forgive yourself, move on and try again. You do have the power to develop your emotional resilience and change your thoughts!
To learn more about how individual therapy can help you reduce cravings and manage negative thought patterns, please contact me to schedule an initial 50-minute consultation. I do not charge for the initial meeting so that you can decide if working together feels right for you. I am a Denver therapist serving the Cherry Creek, Park Hill, Capitol Hill, Uptown, Mayfair, Washington Park and Bonnie Brae areas.