Category Archives: Willpower

The secret to robbing cravings of their power?

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.

Tapping is a great tool for managing cravings

Cravings are a cruel part of breaking a bad habit–they can be painful, and they tend to lead to self-shame and other negative, unhelpful feelings. I’m thinking about sugar cravings here, but there are lots of other things that fit the description.

One thing  I know about cravings, after dealing with them first with smoking and later with food, is that as we persevere, they do get less frequent and eventually go away.  In the meantime, however, it’s helpful to have techniques to deal with them in the moment, when they first strike–when they are hard to ignore.  EFT (emotional freedom technique, or just tapping) works really well for getting through the cravings without giving in.

If you’re one who struggles, here’s a link to the Tapping Solution how to video. it’s very easy to follow if you’ve never done it, or you’ve forgotten where all those pesky tapping points are. (This  technique has also helped me with sleep issues, too.)

Thanksgiving countdown, and some help for those feast day cravings

Here we are counting down to Thanksgiving—my favorite holiday! I used to say it was my favorite holiday because it’s all about food. Then I evolved to saying it’s my favorite holiday because it’s all about food and friends. Now I think it’s my favorite holiday because it’s all about food, friends, family and gratitude—not necessarily in that order.

I have my master list made, though the menu will probably change before the day. There will be individual lists for the days leading up to the feast, and menu planning for the other days of the week. And then there’s my daughter’s birthday, which takes place on Black Friday this year. Since we celebrate birthday weeks in our family, this adds to the list mania. (Mac and cheese is her chosen birthday dinner.)

This Thanksgiving I’m going to make sure that the turkey stays on the counter, a few steps away from the table, perhaps with a few of the heavier sides. I just want to see if we eat less turkey and more vegetables as a result. Also, I like the idea of adding a sit-down appetizer or soup course, just to see if it helps us slow down and perhaps eat a little less.

It’s fun to think about having my food scientist hat on for the holiday, but I won’t be surprised if all these bright ideas come to naught. It’s a feast, after all.

Yum.

On a more serious note, this season can be especially challenging for those of us who struggle with cravings for sweets. Here are some tips for dealing with those cravings this holiday season.

I’ve shamelessly stolen most of these tips for reducing (eventually eliminating) cravings from several PsyBlog.com posts by English psychologist Jeremy Dean. Others come from my experience, and some from Brian Wansink’s wonderful books.

  • Tap your forehead: plain old tapping, though I can attest that EFT-type tapping works too.
  • Change how you think in the moment: Focus on the long-term consequences of giving in to the impulse. I use the words “false promise” to remind me that giving in won’t give me what I really want and need, which is better health, better mood, clarity of mind, and energy—in other words, wellbeing.
  • Play Tetris, or . . . Turns out three minutes of playing Tetris can reduce cravings for food, cigarettes and alcohol. Or try a similar favorite distraction.
  • Use your imagination: Try thinking about how a rainbow looks or the smell of eucalyptus. Or stare at the sunset, or at anything, really.
  • Look at loads of pictures of food: This strikes me as the most unlikely weight-loss trick ever: looking at endless pictures of foods can make them less enjoyable to eat. My sister Gael’s trick was to look at forbidden foods and fantasize about the taste, texture, etc.
  • Go for a walk: A 15-minute walk is enough to stop food cravings brought on by stressful situations, a new study has found.
  • Protein-rich breakfast: Eating a good breakfast — particularly one rich in protein — boosts a critical neurotransmitter, which may lower food cravings later in the day. People experience a dramatic decline in cravings for sweet foods when they eat breakfast. High protein breakfasts also reduced cravings for savory or high-fat foods.
  • Chew gum: One of my favorites for warding off cravings when I’m at the grocery store. Some studies suggest it can also reduce our snack intake.
  • Sleep well: When we don’t sleep well, we don’t resist temptation well either. This is because “high-level brain regions required for complex judgments and decisions become blunted by a lack of sleep, while more primal brain structures that control motivation and desire are amplified.”
  • Pay attention to your emotions: Tuning in to your emotions is an important part of learning how to manage food cravings and lose weight.
  • Many people fighting cravings for sweets report that when they can cut out sugar, they lose the cravings. Remember that cravings are not commands, and they lose their power when we turn our attention elsewhere.

If you do give in to a craving—hey, we’re only human!—try saying to yourself, “I don’t need this, but I’m going to eat it anyway.” It may help you eat less—a bite or two rather than a whole piece—and it may help you resist a craving next time.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Do you struggle with motivation?

The other day I was thinking about some research showing that questioning our ability to reach our goals can actually increase our intrinsic motivation. (Intrinsic motivation doesn’t depend on what anyone else thinks about your project or goal—and so of course it’s the motivation that is the best predictor of success.)

I wrote out a list of questions on the topic of a project I’ve had in mind for years—a project I haven’t been able to make much progress with.

Here are some examples from my list of questions:
Will I succeed in finishing this project?
Never mind that, will I succeed in making time to regularly work on the project?
Will I be able to organize the material?
Will I find the time to do the research?
Will I be able to do a good job?

I also wrote more specific questions about my fears, but I started with general ones like the ones above.

As I wrote my list, I wasn’t surprised to find that each question brought up feelings: anxiety, excitement, doubt, fear—a host of strong feelings about my goal and my ability to achieve it. Asking questions in this way forced me to take a closer look at my fears rather than hide from them. In the process, I discovered that I really do have answers for each one—not always great answers, but hey, we work with what we’ve got, right? They were answers like, That’s not going to happen!, and So what?, and Oh well, I can live with that, and, finally, But this is what I want to do anyway.  This is what I want to do, whether I reach the goal in the end or not.

One thing I didn’t feel was overwhelmed—and this surprised me. Instead, the process of raising the questions and exploring  my fears, feelings, and vulnerabilities was liberating.

Arriving at that last answer, confirmation of the importance of doing this project regardless of the outcome, really did put me in touch with my intrinsic motivation. It’s as if those fears were sapping the strength of my real motivation. Or perhaps the stronger motivation emerged from putting the fears, feelings, and answers together in one document with the goal.

I’m not sure how or why it worked, but it did, and I’m looking forward to exploring this tool for change.  If you decide to try it, please let me know how it goes for you.

Ready for change? Sign up for the next Weight Control with Hypnosis class

I’m getting ready for the next series of Weight Control with Hypnosis classes starting October 15 at Whatcom Community College, and I’m getting excited! It is so great to see people using these classes to make so many positive changes in their lives, and I love seeing so many wonderful people supporting each other in this work.

I often boast that the only side effect of hypnosis is relaxation—and it’s true, I assure you—but when it comes to this class, there’s another, equally wonderful side effect: it will introduce you to a new, positive way of thinking about the daily care and maintenance of your body, mind, and spirit. And I mean your body—not mine or your sister’s or your neighbor’s—your body, your mind, your spirit. Your well-being.

Big words; a big promise. Especially since every body is unique; therefore every path on the road to well-being is unique. And yet, we’ll discover, a lot of the milestones—and the obstacles—that people face look pretty similar.

We’ll talk about this stuff in class—in between relaxing hypnosis sessions—and you’ll see that it is possible to let go of the barriers between you and your healthy weight. Not just possible—it’s doable.

For you that might mean breaking some bad habits, or making new healthier habits.

It might mean clarifying your motivation (it’s the cornerstone for solid, dependable willpower, and everyone needs willpower, no matter what they weigh!).

It might mean banishing cravings that torment you when you try to eat in a healthier way.

It might mean finding ways to nourish yourself that have nothing to do with food.

It might include recognizing and changing attitudes that don’t serve your commitment to your own wellbeing.

I know that’s a daunting list, but all these things, and more, come up in each class, and we work with them, and through them. With hypnosis, you’ll find it doesn’t have to be a battle—and each small change has powerful, enduring rewards!

If you’re interested and have questions about the class, or hypnosis in general, please do feel free to contact me. And you can use this link to register for the class.

Affirmations work—or do they?

Lots of people—maybe millions of people—use affirmations, or have used them, or plan to. I’m in that number, and my results have been mixed. Turns out I’m not alone.

What this research shows is that affirmations do work, sometimes, and what makes the difference is how well the affirmations we choose align with our sense of self. The subjects were a small sample of 249 college students.  Most of them used affirmations, using them most frequently during stressful times.  The subjects were tested to evaluate their sense of self-esteem both before and after using the affirmation “I am a lovable person.”  Those starting out with higher self esteem reported feeling better about themselves after using the affirmation.

Those with low self esteem felt worse.  In other words, some inner bullshit detector was activated by the difference between the statement and their own sense of what was true for them, and the difference not only negated the effect of the affirmation, it focused their attention on the negative (“I am not a lovable person”).

I welcomed this finding, because now I have a context for evaluating affirmations for myself. I can pay attention to my bullshit detector, and choose accordingly.  If I have a sense that the affirmation is true, or potentially true, for me, I can use it.  If not . . . .

In another study, a survey of 5000 people on the subject of happiness, out of ten proven habits for happy people, self-acceptance was key. Of the ten habits, it was also the one people were least likely to practice. The article describing the study includes these suggestions for increasing self-acceptance:

  • Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small
  • Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you what your strengths are or what they value about you
  • Spend some quiet time by yourself. Tune in to how you’re feeling inside and try to be at peace with who you are.

Personally I see mindfulness meditation as a clear path to self-acceptance, and for anyone who’s interested in the topic, I highly recommend Tara Brach’s books, podcasts, and website as an introduction.

Another kind of affirmation I read about on PsyBlog (one of my favorite psychology sites) has been shown to increase willpower, a notoriously unstable commodity. And we could all use more of that!  Lack of willpower is associated with addiction (I’m including food in this category), and underachievement in other areas.

The practice that’s been shown to renew willpower is simple: take a moment to focus on core values.

Being able to call up willpower on demand is a pretty useful trick.  I’m going to use this when I’m fighting a craving for something that I really don’t need or want. Or when I’m procrastinating, choosing some online time-waster instead of some other task I need to do.

Next time you recognize that your willpower is failing, try this: Stop and think about the things that are deeply meaningful to you.  So, that could be any spiritual beliefs, connections with family, projects that bring you great satisfaction, or any activities that you’re proud of.  Then when you bring your thoughts back to the craving, you may find your willpower is once again stronger than the craving.

Of course, recognizing when you need to stop and think before you react is key to making this kind of affirmation work.

Whatever tools you are using to build self-acceptance, hypnosis and self-hypnosis can support you, by helping to integrate the attributes and the behaviors you want more of in your life.

Dates for upcoming hypnosis workshops at Whatcom Community College

To register for any of the following workshops, contact Whatcom Community Education at 360-383-3200 or visit WhatcomCommunityEd.com. Feel free to contact me for more info.

Hypnosis for Weight Control II

Part II of a series (3 class sessions in Part I and three in Part II) this class  is designed to continue the transformation of your relationship with with food.  Part II focuses on strengthening motivation for maintaining the healthy changes you’ve made, and developing strategies for dealing with obstacles to your continued well-being and stress-free relationship with food.  Class content is based on research in habit change, willpower, and how our bodies process the foods we choose.   Sessions are Wednesdays from February 26 to March 12.

The Power of Self Hypnosis for Positive Change

This one-session introduction to self hypnosis is designed to prepare you to use self-hypnosis to meet your goals. You’ll practice several ways to go into a hypnotic state, and learn how to craft effective suggestions to support your efforts.  You’ll leave the class ready to use self-hypnosis, a powerful tool for making changes.  Class is at Whatcom Community College on April 29th from 6:30 to 8:30.

Hypnosis for Weight Control I & II

This two-part series of classes at WCC is designed to transform your experience with food and strengthen your relationship with your own body.  Part I focuses on reducing the stress of the battle to control weight, appreciating yourself–and your body–for who you are right now, and learning how to move beyond old patterns that keep you from enjoying a healthy body at a healthy weight.  Class content is based on research in habit change, willpower, and how our bodies process the foods we choose. Part I is on Tuesdays from May 6 to May 20.

Part II focuses on strengthening motivation for maintaining the healthy changes you’ve made, and developing strategies for dealing with obstacles to your continued well-being and stress-free relationship with food.  Class content is based on research in habit change, willpower, and how our bodies process the foods we choose. Part II is on Tuesdays from May 27 to  June 10.

 

Coming back from the holidays . . .

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday—all about friends, family, and food. I love a feast! And I kind of overdid it this year, which I guess is partly the point of a feast. High points of the dinner: the eggplant and cornbread stuffing, and the pumpkin pie with homemade cinnamon ice cream. And leftovers—poached eggs over the leftover stuffing for breakfast—oh my! Oh well.

We also had a family birthday just after Thanksgiving. So it will come as no surprise to hear that I ate more than I usually do. And perhaps more to the point, I ate more butter, more cream, more eggs—all that rich, high fat stuff. Looking at the list, I don’t regret one iota of it. However, I am finding myself very aware of all the reasons that I don’t eat like that everyday.

In fact, it’s been nice coming slowly back to our more normal routine (as the leftovers disappear), and nice too to have some new healthy things to enjoy. After listening to the interview with Dr. John LaPuma that I mentioned in my last post, I got ChefMD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine from the library. I learned something from his chapter on satiety that I’ve been using over the last few days.

Apparently, our bodies have a different reaction to water than we do to foods that are full of water. When we drink a glass of water, it filters right through our systems. But when we eat a food that is full of water (lettuce, vegetable juice, soup) our bodies treat it like food and digest it more slowly.

One of my challenges is that I tend to munch in the evenings, from the time I start making dinner. The last few days, I’ve been drinking a glass of spicy vegetable juice before I make dinner, and I do notice a difference. It tastes and feels satisfying. It has another benefit, too. I’ve noticed that since I’m not distracted by hunger, it’s easier to pay attention to what I’m doing, and when I sit down to dinner, I’m more relaxed and ready to enjoy the food.