Temptation is everywhere.
I am trying really hard not to eat sugar and other unhealthy foods so that I can lose the weight I regained over the last year. (If you haven't been following my journey, I lost over 200 pounds in 2017 and early 2018 but regained about 80 towards the end of 2018 and into 2019.)
The problem is that I am a sugar addict. It's as simple and as complicated as that. I am addicted to sugar and I crave it when I don't have any. I feel like I can't control myself whenever I find sugary foods or even simple carb-y foods like bread and cake. I eat them until they are all gone. I don't even really think about eating them; I just do it.
I tried Overeaters Anonymous, the branch of Alcoholics Anonymous in which a lot of people have found hope and strength. It didn't work for me for a variety of reasons that I won't go into here. (If you are interested in learning more about that, head over to this post.)
I have been reading a book called Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, & Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior, and I have found tremendous hope in that book. It suggested that one of my major problems might be self-hate (definitely), along with addiction (yes), and my subconscious brain's need to satisfy my deeply buried emotional needs in any feel-good way it can find, namely foods that light up the brain's pleasure sensors. Your feel-good fix might be shopping or sex or something else, but I'm guessing that your underlying reasons for doing that thing are largely the same as mine. (Though in all honesty, the book goes into something like twelve different triggers.)
I have always been a writer and journal-er, but I have delved into that habit in a whole new way since reading Rewire. The premise of the book is that your self-destructive habits are coming from your sub-conscious brain, the automatic responses that you don't even know you have. Once you are aware of these responses, you can work on identifying them when they pop up and acting in a different way.
I've been trying to uncover my unconscious thoughts through stream of consciousness-style free-writing, and it has worked in a lot of ways. I'm not cured yet, and I probably never will be cured. I ate brownies for breakfast this morning. But I am talking to myself in a new way sometimes (when I remember), and I am journaling to uncover my unconscious thoughts and feelings, and I am forging new brain connections.
The new brain connections are the key to lasting behavior change. It goes back to growth mindset, which I have written about before here. In short, your brain activity follows the path that it's used to. If you start disrupting your normal thought patterns, it will be really hard to make a change, but each time you do the new thing, it becomes a little more normal and the path to it becomes a little more worn and easier to follow. The old path is still there, and you could revert to it if you're not careful, but you can train your brain to do the new thing with repetition over time. Your brain learns to build new connections with your continued effort and making the better choice.
Controlling the impulse to succumb to cravings
In Rewire, there is a whole section on impulse control. The author doesn't say this, but I would venture to guess that pretty much every single person who struggles with falling into temptation has trouble with impulse control.
Some of us have medical diagnoses (like my bipolar disorder) that make impulse control especially difficult, but everyone struggles with it to some degree or another. We have gut feelings, and our ancestors survived because they did what their gut feelings told them to do. Even today in an age of relative safety, we are used to falling back on those gut feelings for survival. We follow hunches in our work and in dark parking lots. Call it intuition or instinct or basic impulse, but it's all the same. We are used to doing what our subconscious brain tells us to do.
Except in this case, those automatic, subconscious responses are leading us down a dangerous path, towards our self-destructive bad habits and addictions.
In Rewire, the author gives eight points to consider in learning to control our impulses, and I have reworked those points into a free printable that you can hang up on your pantry door or wherever temptation usually strikes you.
8 Tips to Resist Cravings & Temptation
I'll reprint the tips below, but if you want the nice, full-color printable, you should use the button to get it.
- Shutting out temptation is a learnable skill.
This is so true. As I mentioned above, your brain is a living, malleable thing. Every action you take either strengthens old connections or forges new ones. If you consistently give in to temptation, all you will experience is more temptation. However, if you fight it and hold firm agains your cravings, eventually the cravings will go away (or decrease dramatically), and you will not have to work so hard. You can take the first step right now.
- You already know you can make a better choice.
Right? You have all the tools you need to beat this, right now, in your brain.
Incidentally, I have been watching a lot of TED talks, and one called A Simple Way to Break A Bad Habit struck me enough that I did some research on its speaker, Judson Brewer. His whole talk was about how mindfulness can eliminate smoking and overeating cravings. As you might imagine, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more and so Googled him. I discovered that he is a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, but he also started a company that builds apps to help people quit smoking, quit binge eating and other problematic food behaviors, and break free from anxiety. The apps are free to get but pretty costly to subscribe to, but I started a free trial of his Eat Right Now app anyway. I'm going to give it a shot. He claims a really high success rate, so we'll see.
- Think about how you want to be one year from now. Since I was a little, fat kid, I have always fantasized about the future in which I was skinny and well-liked. It's always this nebulous thing, far away in an alternate reality. Never, in all those daydreams, did I ever think to myself, gee, I could make that dream happen if I started today by XYZ. You can. You can start today by saying no to your craving, and tomorrow, it will be a little easier to say now, and in a year, you will be so glad that you made the decision and started today.
- Remember there is no need to get immediate gratification to fix these feelings. Herein lies the rub, right? We succumb to temptation because we want to fix our feelings right now. We want them to go away. We may want to feel smart, attractive, interesting, but it all boils down to feeling good. We want to feel good and we have learned over many years of giving in to temptation that this thing we do makes us feel good. For me, it's brownies and chocolate. For you, it may be something else, but I'm 100% absolutely convinced that whatever your thing is, the reward you get is a pleasant, maybe even euphoric, feeling.
- Get rid of the temptation but do not eat it. When I was in OA, one of my many sponsors suggested putting tempting food down the garbage disposal to get rid of it. Simply throwing it in the trash would not work for me because I most likely would just dig it out and eat it anyway. I've since realized that it was the focus on the banned foods that was making me that crazy, but it doesn't really matter. I can't have tempting foods in the house because I will inevitably give in and eat them. So we didn't sell Girl Scout cookies this year and we don't buy Cinnamon Toast Crunch anymore and so on. The key is, if you are craving something badly and it is within your reach, you must get rid of it in whatever way makes the most sense.
- Distract yourself. Despite how it may feel at the time, cravings are temporary feelings. They don't last forever; they don't even last all day. This temptation you're feeling is fleeting, and if you can notice it, the feelings and the physical sensations, and the immediacy of it, and then distract yourself by getting busy doing something else, you will probably be able to ride it out.
- Visualize the results of being strong. If your thing, like mine, is food, if you are strong and don't succumb, you will feel more attractive and get more compliments. You will lose weight and feel better about your body. No matter what your thing is, if you can recognize that you are suffering from a fleeting craving and stay strong against it, you will be completely proud of yourself when it finally passes. Just focus on how good that will feel.
- Delay. You can wait 5 minutes. After that, you can wait 5 more. Keep waiting until the craving passes, as it will.
Friend, cravings and temptations are real and painful and strong. I know. It hurts to not do the thing your whole body and mind are telling you that you should do.
You will probably give in sometimes, but hopefully, more often than not, you will be able to be strong and resist. And the more you resist, the better you will get at resisting. It's just how your brain works; success breeds success.
You can do this. I have faith in you.