How to Use Cravings to Reach Your Goals
Me and the reward system
What's the problem then?
Knowing ones cravings
What happens in the brain
How to cheat the craving
Using the triggers to ones advantage
Adjusting the reward system
1. Me and the Reward System
One January morning in 2015 I sat for the umpteenth time, with my Mac on my lap and planned my New Year's resolutions - step by step. The goal was to master free handstand, make a proper website and to lose a few kilos. Every day I would practice a little bit of handstanding, write a bit, and I also made a plan for how a slightly slimmer version of me could become reality - I would definitely reach those goals. In the thick of the planning fight I’d completely forgot all my previous well-planned and unfulfilled visions and prepared my man that from the next day on he would experience a new and more purposeful wife.
Day one dawned. Full of January-go-do attitude, I turned on the computer and started writing on a blog for the website. I had written two lines before the idea to check Facebook, Instagram, and today's news began to interfere. Convincing thoughts that perhaps something significantly or serious had happened since yesterday pushed hard for a reaction. I tried to ignore the urge, but the thoughts seemed more and more important, so I decided to give myself just five minutes to check... Half’n hour later, I returned to the scribbling, but now I had to try to ignore the sound of "Death or Alive" from the room's giant flat screen TV - a tense docudrama about surviving accidents, which my husband watched from the couch, one meter from me. On top of that a part of me also attempted to convince me that a cup of tea to the work would do good for the writing process. I was a bit cold too. “I deserve a bath and a little self-indulgence.” I thought. But I was steadfast even though a big part of me just wanted to turn off the computer and throw myself down on the couch and swallow the television drama with a croissant in my hand. I managed to write a little further, until I remembered that it was important that I checked up on trips to Uruguay and Sri Lanka - places that I really wanted to visit. The day was still young - I could start my handstand training and my website project later. Anyway after a long inner dialogue I surrendered to a few of the disturbing impulses, got up to make a cup of tea, that I could enjoy during my travel-research, but when I reach the spot right between the desk and the kettle, my husbands head appeared over the back of the couch: "Finish at least one full page before you make that cup of tea." He announced. Boy, was I annoyed with him, nevertheless I turned around and resumed the website project - and actually enjoyed it after a short while. I ended up writitng two good pages and followed by practicing handstands for several minutes. It was with a really good feeling I finished my tasks, made a cuppa for both of us, and threw myself down on the couch where I enjoyed the rest of "Death or Alive" with hubby.
2. constant Cravings
What was at play in my mind right there - all the way through - was the reward system. The reward system is located in the oldest part of the brain and is thus responsible for our survival as individuals and as specie. It ensures that we, after days of hunger, still can mobilize us to hunt for prey and be bothered to shag, but it also ensures that we want to move through the world, learn new things and stay curious - which is essential for our evolution and survival as specie. To keep us enthusiastic for all that the neurotransmitter dopamine is triggered, which is a strong expectation and motivation fuel. Dopamine is the carrot that the brain puts before us when we do something that will promote our survival. Dopamine helps control our blood pressure, metabolism and digestion; it helps us to improve our learning skills and concentration, and is the substance that makes things meaningful to us.
Dopamine makes us desire, long for, aspire, seek and search. It increases our general incitement level, our desire to eat, our perseverance and our curiosity on ideas, and is the engine that makes us search for information.
Without dopamine, we would have no motivation - at all.
3. What’s the Problem Then?
Dopamine is also what creates craving, longing and addiction, and the reward system is from a time when we had to survive on the savannah, where the availability of fat, sugar, and salt were limited and where sex wasn’t necessarily easy to get. Furthermore the reward system is situated in the vertebrate brain – the oldest part of our brain, which wasn’t designed to handle the super stimulating, synthetic versions of food, search engines, social media, news sites, social contact - nor internet sex for that matter – that we have access to today. Sweets, cheeseburgers and snacks have simply such high levels of sugar, salt and fat that far outstrips what our ancestral environment could have offered, and with the Internet you can almost immediately satisfy your curiosity, need for searching, social contact and sex, hence the reason we empty a bag of chips and down it with a coke; though we just intended to eat one single flake of a potato chip, and though we’re on a diet, and this is the reason we go on Facebook, even though we had just decided, to focus on our studies.
Dopamine creates anticipation and lures with future pleasure if you take a "survival action" like eating a bag of chips or candy (fat, salt and sugar), googleling, checking Facebook and the like. But there is a way to trick the system and get it to sync with one's long-term intentions.
Update March 15, 2017:
If you Are a True Carbohydrate Addict
People who grew up in alcoholic or chaotic homes may have brain and body chemistry that is overly sensitive to the effects of food, and particularly to the antidepressant neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is released in the brain quite rapidly when you eat simple carbohydrates, such as breakfast cereals, sweets, chips, white bread, cookies etc. True carbohydrate addicts cannot stop after eating a few cookies or potato chips. They don’t seem to have a normal satiety mechanism in place, most likely because food is being used as a drug to soothe emotional pain. If this describes you, I can really recommend to give the advices in the post a go and to consult one of the following books:
4. Knowing Ones Cravings
Imagine right now, literally, that you’re looking down into an open bag of your favourite chips. You believe they’ll increase your immediate wellbeing – that you need them – actually you crave for them.
You hear the rustle sound from the bag as you stick your hand into it. You feel the rough, greasy surface of the snack as you move one to your mouth and crackle it between the molars, which releases spittle and with it a wonderful little feeling of satisfaction.
You repeat the process – the feeling of satisfaction re-enters, but strangely enough not as strong as with the first bite, and it is as if this pleasure is mixed with a bit of not-so-satisfied. But eager to reach the first feeling of pleasure you grab a handful an fill your mouth – again a little less satisfied feeling than before and maybe this time also mixed with a touch of disgust. Well, that can’t be right so you end up eating the whole bag, but even then the satisfaction fails to happen and instead leaves you with a feeling of discomfort and very full.
However illogic it may sound, a craving is an experience where we not only want or long for something, but we also need it – but it is only a feeling, it’s not physical. Physical cravings aren't as abundant as we probably think, they do exist, but unless it's related to drugs, alcohol or strong hunger most of us don't have a close relation to the feeling of a real physical addiction. Essentially, our cravings are mental, we crave something the body has gotten used to, whether that means cigarettes, food, alcohol, Facebook nor anything else – it’s the same response in the brain that is activated.
A bit more on the cigarette cravings,,,
Smoking has long been seen as a physical addiction, but is in fact more related to a general craving formed by a habit in the brain.
Contrary to the perception of most smokers they do not receive a boost from smoking a cigarette: smoking only relieves the withdrawal symptoms from the previous cigarette, which in turn creates more withdrawal symptoms once it is finished. In this way the drug addiction perpetuates itself. The "relief" smokers feel on lighting a cigarette, the feeling of being "back to normal", is the feeling experienced by non-smokers all the time. So that smokers, when they light a cigarette are really trying to achieve a state that non-smokers enjoy their whole lives. Withdrawal symptoms are actually created by doubt and fear in the mind of the ex-smoker, and therefore is stopping smoking not as traumatic as is commonly assumed, if that doubt and fear can be removed.
When a smoker postpones quitting, because he/she believes that it’s not possible to go through sorrows, problems, waiting time, parties, conversations or dinners without the cigs, it's worthwhile to remember that it’s the dopamine that is talking and talking and enticing with relief and happiness, but it is an illusion. Any non-smoker is going through the same life situations without ever missing a Marlboro light. And the smoker has also as a child (as previous non-smoker) gone through grief, trouble, boredom, meals, party, play and quarrels without even thinking about putting cigarettes in as support - and that condition will return only shortly after becoming a non smoker. Nicotine cravings are not physically – they are just mentally, and the promised "high" NEVER appears regardless of how many cigarettes you inhale.
5. What Happens in the Brain
Cravings, are as mentioned, located in our survival system of the brain, so it is almost as behaviour controlling as anxiety.
First the reward system identify a target that causes the brain to release dopamine, which makes you believe that you will benefit or get pleasure from what you crave. This desire for immediate gratification blocks your prefrontal cortex from weighing your long-term goals against the craving – it’s here where the internal discussion between the angel and the devil begins where the craving is the devil who only think in the short-term solutions, and the angel is the sensible prefrontal cortex pleading you to consider the long-term ramifications.
Next the decisive blow enters where your body releases stress hormones that make you feel discomfort or pain. The stress essentially tricks the body into believing the only way to feel better is to succumb to the craving.
6. How to Cheat the Craving
Cravings are not a good thing. In fact, the triggering of the stress response means we usually feel uncomfortable when a craving comes on. Because of that, we don't want to overuse a lot of the following methods, but they can create temporary triggers that can help you form better habits in the long run.
The techniques are based on theory that the brain can learn to attach the promise of reward to almost anything. If your brain believes that something is going to make you happy, your brain can initiate the craving response and you can train the brain to naturally motivate itself toward long-term goals. Here's how to do it.
1. Set Yourself a Specific Goal and Write It Down as Visually as Possible – Preferable with a Picture.
The brain doesn’t work with unspecific intentions such as: "I want to lose weight" or "I want to write a book." It cooperates more efficiently with precise goals like “I want to master the free handstand” - or if your deepest desire is to lose a stone, you could set a goal that you want to be able to fit into a particular piece of clothing and then visualize yourself in that dress or those pants in size. 8 - or whatever one's desire is, just keep it as tangible and visual as possible. If it’s the book one want to write, then the item title and page number can be set as a goal and remember that it must be something you’re truly passionate about.
Motivation is key.
2. Create Competing Motivations.
You can train the brain to recognize the difference between motivations and cravings. So when your brain craves something, you can properly weigh it against what you really want. This means writing down your goals, keeping them available to you, and constantly reminding yourself of what positive goals you want to achieve. This allows your brain to automatically shift to remember your long-term goals and ignore the cravings that have a negative effect on them.
Be mindful of your craving actions – you can use the exercise above to train your brain to stop and think about your negative cravings and put your mind back in that place where you're still feeling the urge to eat even after you're full. Remember the fact that the chips didn't taste so good after a few bites and how gross it felt afterwards.
Or is it Facebook you just need to check? Then be mindful of the action and remind yourself of the last time you checked it, and how it felt afterwards, what did it give you? A sense of wasted time and focus moved from what really matters in your life?
4. Remind Yourself That It's Dopamine Talking and Luring - Nothing Else.
I speak kindly to mine when it pops up: "Hello Dopa", to make myself conscious of what is going on. Or if it's extra obstinate, I take the long talk: "I know that you want to help me right now, but it’s best for both of us right now and in the long run, if... " It actually helps. Cause the brain just likes to help in any way it can, and in this way you’re also reminded that the promised lasting happiness of a quick fix will fail to happen.
The feeling of pleasure only comes when you’ve done what gives real meaning to your life - like when you've written a chapter of your book, been eating a healthy meal or run that mile and so on. And the great rush of happy feeling comes when you’ve finish that last chapter, when you jump into that piece of favourite clothes that didn’t fit last year or when you finally for the first time can do the free steady handstand in your garden for more than half a second ...
7. Using the Triggers to Ones Advantage
To overcome negative cravings and longings is awesome, and you can further manipulate these instincts to achieve your positive long-term goals.
A craving is often created from a trigger. Since something as simple as reading the words "potato chips" can make you crave them, the same triggers should exist for what you want to crave. It's not a long-term solution to dealing with harmful cravings, but you can use those cravings to accomplish the positive goals you have trouble starting. Here’re a couple ideas for how you can use them…
1. Change of Scenery:
Take something that triggers a craving and then pair it with something you want to get done. For instance, if you have to get paperwork done, combine it with a task you enjoy, like eating a muffin at a coffee shop. If you hate exercise, but enjoy shopping, start speed walking in the mall. The flush of dopamine and stress hormones still come out, but you can associate them with the task you want to accomplish. This eventually wears off and stops working, but it gives you enough time to form a new and healthy habit.
2. Alter your environment:
Place things you truly want around the house to create a competing motivation for your cravings. The idea is that when you're reminded of you positive goals, like exercise or eating better, you have quick access to what you need, not what you want. Make subtle changes to your home or work environment. Keep your running shoes by the door or store fruit in the same place you store cookies. This trains your brain, to not only balance your motivations and cravings properly, but also create triggers for the positive change you want to make. You can't crave what you don't want, but you can train your brain into wanting what's healthy for you.
8. Alter Your Reward System
Your instinctive reward system is designed to make you pursue or chase a goal cf. that dangling a carrot. If you have established a not very concrete goal like you want to become healthier or want to start a saving, while you tend to be a bit of a shopaholic or empty any candy bowl you come across - you can use these little sins as decoy by rewarding yourself every time you have reached a milestone. For example, for every time you've lost three kilograms you allow yourself some candy or every time you have saved up £500 you can shop for £50 - This captures the consumption you crave and turns it into a useful reward (saving money).
Using those cravings to force yourself into accomplishing goals is a great way to provide the temporary reward system needed to establish a long running habit.
The cultivation of small wins can propel you to bigger success, and you should focus on setting just a few small achievable goals. While your ambitions can remain grand, setting the bar too high with goals can actually be counterproductive. Each time we fail, the brain is drained of dopamine making it not only hard to concentrate but also difficult to learn from what went wrong.
The more times you succeed at something, the longer your brain stores the information that allowed you to do so well in the first place. That’s because with each success, our brain releases dopamine and inspires us to re-experience the activity that caused the chemical release in the first place. Furthermore our brain cells only learn from experience when we do things right and failure doesn’t register the same way. When behaviour is successful our cells become finely tuned to what was learned, while a failure shows little change in the brain or improvement in behaviour – hence the reason we find ourself repeating the same mistakes over and over again…
Collecting wins, no matter how small, can chemically wire you to move mountains by causing a repeated release of dopamine. But to get going you have to land those first few successes. The key to creating your own cycle of productivity is to set a grand vision and work your way there with a few, achievable goals that increase your likelihood of experiencing a positive outcome.
Success begets success.
9. Balancing Dopamine
The Dopamine Diet:
The brain’s most important job is to make sure that we stay alive. So if you want it to cooperate on the long-term goals, you’ll need to ensure that the basic needs of the body are present and in abundance. If the body too often is deficient in protein, fat, salt and carbohydrates (sugar), then it will be a very hard and unhealthy battle to reach your target. The important thing here is to choose the good sources so the body is satisfied and at ease.
Another bonus you get by having that dopamine in the balance is that is a good-mood-booster too. I definitely experienced a significant mood difference by changing from eating smoothies in the mornings to start the day with a protein-rich meal.
1. Cut Back on Sugar, Coffee and Alcohol
Sugar alters brain chemistry by disrupting dopamine levels, which is one reason why people often experience a “sugar high” shortly after eating sweets. Just as alcohol and drugs can deplete dopamine levels, sugar does the same. In fact, sugar stimulates the exact same euphoric pathway targeted by alcohol and drug use–that is, the decreased dopamine levels lead to actual sugar addictions. Cutting back on sugar intake will balance the dopamine levels in the brain and thus the urge.
Even though coffee gives you the energy boost you need, just like sugar, it only offers temporary relief and may actually be doing more harm than good. After experiencing the initial kick caffeine offers, dopamine levels in the body decrease. So, go for a cup of decaf or at least minimize consumption of coffee to counter dopamine deficiency.
2. Eat Tyrosine
The brain uses the amino acid l-phenylalanine as the source (precursor) for the production of dopamine. Phenylalanine is one of the “essential” amino acids, that is, the body cannot make it on its own so we have to get it from the foods we eat or from supplements. Once the body receives phenylalanine, it can convert it to tyrosine, which in turn is used to synthesize dopamine. So the way to increase central nervous system neurotransmitter levels is to provide proper amounts of the amino acid precursor.
A person with the body weight of 80 kilograms needs about 1,145 mg phenylalanine / tyrosine per. day
10 foods high in phenylalanine and tyrosine:
- Cheese is a rich source, where the Parmesan cheese has 559 milligrams per ounce
- Roasted soybeans - 1,392 milligrams per cup
- Roast beef has 1,178 milligrams per 3-ounce serving.
- Pork chops, salmon, turkey and chicken have 900 to 1,000 milligrams per 3-ounce cooked portion.
- One egg has 250 milligrams
- A cup of cooked white beans 450 milligrams
- 1/4 cup of peanuts can help you get 351 milligrams
- 1 ounce of pumpkin seeds yields 306 milligrams.
- Grain sources of the amino acid include oats with 447 milligrams per 1/2 cup
- Wild rice with 139 milligrams per 1/2 cup.
Other good sources: bananas, apples, almonds, watermelon and cherries.
Normal absorption of tyrosine require presence of vitamin C, vitamin B3 (niacin), B9 ("Folate" as B9)*, and minerals - particularly copper.
Strong vitamin C sources: peppers, dark leafy vegetables, kiwi, broccoli, berries, tomatoes, citrus fruits.
Good B3 sources: Pretty much the same that contains tyrosine.
Good B9 sources: Beans, lentils, spinach, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, cauliflower, mangoes, oranges, beets, corn, celery, carrots, squash.
Good forms of methylfolate, which are well absorbed:
- L-5-MTHF = L-5-Methyltetrahydrofolate = 6(S)-L-MTHF = 6(S)-L-Methyltetrahydrofolate
- L-Methylfolate Calcium = Metafolin = Levomefolic Acid
The forms of methylfolate that are biologically active are:
- L forms
- 6(S) forms
- L-5 forms
- L-Methylfolate Calcium
- Levomefolic Acid
The Dopamine Lifestyle:
1. Set a Routine Schedule
One easy way to boost dopamine is to get in a healthy routine and stick to it. Your routine should include adequate time for work and rest. Ideally, your 24-hour day should include seven to eight hours of sleep per night in combination with periods of physical activity.
Under sleeping and/or over-sleeping combined with lack of regular exercise can drain the brain of dopamine. Because proper sleep gives the brain time to recuperate from the day and recharge its stores of neurotransmitters. And, regular physical activity increases blood circulation to influence the presence of many different hormones within the brain, affecting dopamine levels.
You can read more about how to get your beauty sleep here.
2. Decrease Stress Levels
High stress levels are also strongly correlated with dopamine deficiency. Stress can be caused by two sources: poor adrenal function and chronic daily life stressors. While we can’t always control our circumstances, there are “stress safeguards” you can utilize to help you deal with the day-in and day-out anxieties.
Remember, if stress is not handled properly, it can be devastating to your health. So, establish an on going plan that enables you to deal with stress effectively.
Furthermore tyrosine supports the adrenal functions and the natural production of adrenaline, so a stressed body has extra needs for tyrosine – maybe from supplements. If the body doesn’t get sufficient with tyrosine it will be “stolen"
3. Correct a magnesium deficiency
If you’ve been eating a diet heavy in junk foods or processed foods, you probably have a magnesium deficiency! Common symptoms include food cravings (salt or carbs), constipation, high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat or palpitations, muscle pains and spasms, fatigue, headaches, and depression symptoms such as mood swings, anxiety and irritability. Read more about this vital mineral here.
Enjoy and remember that the situation we’re in today is the result of the choices we’ve made in the past. The future that lies ahead of us is determined by the choices we make today.
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All information in this blog is strictly for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. The statements made in this blog have not been evaluated by The Danish Health Authority. The products linked to in this book and any information published in this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information provided by this blog is not a substitute for a faceto-face consultation with your physician, and should not be construed as medical advice. The entire contents of this blog are based upon the opinions of Hanne Robinson. By reading and using this blog, you agree to only use this publication for personal informational use and not as a substitute for medical or other professional advice.