The way I understand the phenomenon of cravings is like this: there’s a trigger, probably established through behavior that’s learned through diligent though not necessarily fully conscious behavior. In other words, over time, we create a habit of using something—a cigarette, a sweet, alcohol, etc.—to change our experience.
And after a while, when the part of us that’s learned this lesson decides that we need a distraction from some source of anxiety or other emotional challenge, it creates a craving to send us off in search of a reward. It doesn’t really care about the reward, it just wants us to feel energized and focused instead of whatever else we were feeling. It doesn’t care if the carrot it’s dangling is something we really do or don’t want; it just knows from experience that the shift in focus to whatever the false promise is—a piece of cake, ice cream, a glass of wine—is enough to temporarily take our minds off whatever we are feeling.
I’ve noticed both through my own experience and from talking to hundreds of people about their cravings that if we can consistently ignore them, they really do weaken over time. We may find that they come back intermittently when we are vulnerable, but the more we can “just say no,” the more power they lose.
A useful suggestion for dealing with cravings for foods that we don’t really want—that phenomenon of being driven to a behavior that we already know won’t make us feel good—is to distract ourselves, since a craving, though intense, is brief in duration.
A recent study used people’s real-world experience of fighting cravings by playing Tetris versus just waiting out the cravings. All the study participants reported their cravings, rating each one’s strength, vividness and intrusiveness. Then they either played Tetris or waited until the craving passed, and then they reported on how much the cravings had been affected. When the cravings began, both groups rated their cravings similarly, but after, the participants who had played Tetris had significantly lower craving and less vivid craving imagery—24% less, in fact—than the ones who had just waited.
The authors of the study suggest that one of the factors that makes this kind of distraction work so well is that playing Tetris engages what’s called the visuospatial working memory. “Working memory” refers to the function of memory when performing tasks, and in this case, the task also includes processing visual and spatial cues. In other words, they are suggesting that the task that draws on these two factors interrupts a craving, perhaps by diverting the brainpower that enables those cravings in the first place.
I’ve never played Tetris, but what I take away from this study’s finding is that we can further weaken cravings by making sure that our plan for distracting ourselves during cravings includes those elements of working memory and visual-spatial processing.
Lots of video games would include that, I think, although I’m not sure that would be a good recommendation for some folks—we wouldn’t want to replace one unhealthy behavior with another equally bad, or worse. So what else would work? Doing a few minutes on a jigsaw? Drawing something from memory? Knitting? Playing music? What about just watching a sunset? Any other suggestions?
Last night, just after I’d written these paragraphs, I experienced a real live craving as I was getting dinner ready before I had to rush off to an evening appointment. I thought about the options I’d just listed and realized that none of them would be helpful in my situation. But as I was making a salad, giving it my undivided attention—slicing red pepper, green onions, cucumber, a Bosc pear, some tomato—I unexpectedly found the activity very calming. It turns out that simply giving my undivided, mindful attention to the task at hand was enough to lessen the craving.
Maybe it’s really the mindful attention that sets up the processing and interrupts the cravings.