From Three Cookies to One–or None: How Do We Break Our Bad Habits?

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Did you know that Facebook Addiction Disorder is really a “thing”—and not a FAD? (Sorry, another bad pun—and so soon!) It’s not in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but it, and obsessive Internet use in general, is increasingly drawing the attention of psychiatric researchers.

I plead guilty. Not to checking Facebook frequently, though I do look at it most days. But I am heavily Internet-dependent—so much so that I recently had to upgrade my iPhone because I ran out of space and couldn’t get access to many of my apps (including my mindfulness app, which is, coincidentally, supposed to keep me in the moment).

There’s just so much stuff out there to learn, including what all the wonderful bloggers I’ve become acquainted with are up to, and why the plural of octopus is octopuses, not octopi (which I’ve written about), and what’s the name of that movie I saw years ago/last week, and, in truth, how many people are visiting my current post?

(My new phone has a feature that I could live without—almost as though it’s in league with these researchers [?]: it tells me my average daily screen time from the previous week, in hours and minutes.)

None of this may sound very serious, but it’s all tied up with how our brains function. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s connected to all those other areas of our lives that we know we should better control—such as overeating, smoking, and stressing about things real or imagined.

Why, if we’re so smart, and we know what we should do, is it so hard for us to follow through? Are there ways that we can take better control of our lives—without investing a fortune of time, money, and energy?

Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, thinks there are. Brewer is an addictions expert, an associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University, where he serves as the Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center, as well as a research affiliate at MIT.

He’s the author of a book with the less-than-succinct title: The Craving Mind: from cigarettes to smartphones to love, why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits, published by Yale University Press in 2017.

Brewer has successfully used mindfulness training to get people to stop smoking, lose weight, reduce anxiety, and break all sorts of bad habits. I haven’t read his book, and none of the three videos of him that I watched mentioned “love,” so I regret that I can’t enlighten us in that regard. The quotations in this post are primarily from a TEDMED Talk he did in 2015. The bolding for emphasis throughout is mine.

It’s no small irony, by the way, that he’s now creating apps to bring this training to people where they’re most likely to use it. See www.goeatrightnow.com; www.unwindinganxiety.com; www.cravingtoquit.com. He offers free trials, but I’m not endorsing these, and I haven’t tried them.

If you’re thinking, “Oh, Annie, not another thing about mindfulness,” I can tell you that although I am a practitioner and I believe both individuals and the world would be better off if more of us were, I think you can put some of Brewer’s insights to work without getting deeply involved in the practice.

Let’s start with the brain because that is, of course, central to this approach. The prefrontal cortex, which Brewer points out is “that youngest part of our brain from an evolutionary perspective,” is where cognition resides.

So we can figure out, for example, that having a dozen brownies in a single sitting is not a smart thing to do. But they taste so good, and if we’re sad, or stressed, we just keep that hand-to-mouth action going. Sometimes we don’t feel very good afterward, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it again.

This behavior is linked via evolution to our needs for survival. In a convoluted way, here’s how we get to that dozen brownies. Calories equal survival. And sugar, as we’ve increasingly learned, holds a special allure. As Brewer explains, our bodies send a signal to our brains:

”Remember what you’re eating and where you found it…See food, eat food, feel good, repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward.

Then we learn that the food we began eating for survival can serve other purposes:

“You know, next time you feel bad, why don’t you try eating something good so you’ll feel better? We thank our brains for the great idea…and quickly learn that if we eat chocolate or ice cream when we’re mad or sad, we feel better.”

What began as survival has become something more complex.

“We’re fighting one of the most evolutionarily conserved learning processes currently known to science, one that’s conserved back to the most basic nervous systems known to man.”

That is positive and negative reinforcement. And the problem is that, as sharp as our thought processes may be, they’re simply not strong enough to hold back the forces of stress. As Brewer says:

“We’re using cognition to control our behavior. Unfortunately, this is also the first part of our brain that goes offline when we get stressed out.”

Of course, the process is more complicated than this, involving the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, as well as other portions of the brain, but I think we can get the idea without a detailed neurology lesson.

Brewer doesn’t mention the reptilian brain, the oldest portion, the one that enacts the fight/flight/freeze response under stress. When we need cognition the most, the reptilian brain slithers to the forefront. (I’ve written about my personal struggle between my prefrontal cortex and reptilian brain previously. Guess who won?)

To find out how to break this cycle, it’s worth looking at the success Brewer and colleagues have had in helping patients stop smoking, which is the toughest addiction of all to overcome. They tested whether mindfulness training could help people quit.

Brewer has explained that when he started practicing mindfulness meditation, it was a terrible strain to keep his focus on his breath, to try to continue paying attention. I think anyone who’s ever tried mindfulness understands this challenge; I certainly do.

But he resolved the struggle when he realized that he needed to turn to the “natural reward-based learning process” of “trigger, behavior, reward,” adding what he called “a twist: What if we just got really curious about what was happening in our momentary experience?”

He applied the concept of curiosity to the smoking research. Instead of telling their patients not to smoke, he and his colleagues said the reverse. “Smoke, but be really curious about what it’s like when you do.” And here’s a report of how it worked. One woman said:

“Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. YUCK!”

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Says Brewer:

“Now she knew, cognitively, that smoking was bad for her; that’s why she joined our program. What she discovered just by being curiously aware when she smoked was that smoking tastes like s—t.

“Now she moved from knowledge to wisdom….the spell of smoking was broken. She started to become disenchanted with her behavior.”

This happens over time, he emphasized: “as we learn to see more and more clearly the results of our actions, we let go of old habits and form new ones.”

Brewer refers to one study they did that found mindfulness training (MT) was twice as effective as the American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking (FFS) treatment, which is considered the gold standard. The MT group both reduced their smoking and showed continued greater abstinence during followup.

It’s still not easy. The prefrontal cortex, Brewer says,

“understands on an intellectual level that we shouldn’t smoke. And it tries its hardest to help us change our behavior, to help us stop smoking, stop eating that second, third, fourth cookie. We call this cognitive control.

And then we fall back into our old habits. But like the woman smoker, once we understand our habits on a deeper, more visceral level, our interest in pursuing them lessens.

With mindfulness, instead of turning away from unpleasantness or fighting it, we turn toward it and regard it with curiosity, which is naturally rewarding. And it helps us see that cravings are discrete sensations that come and go, so we can manage them from one moment to the next, “rather than getting clobbered by this huge, scary craving that we can choke on.”

In an interview, Brewer differentiates between intellectual curiosity and experiential curiosity. The one that makes a difference is the latter.

Our curiosity, he contends, permits us to

“step out of our old, fear-based reactive habit patterns, and we step into being. We become this inner scientist where we’re eagerly awaiting that next data point.”

So people who smoke or eat due to stress or feel compelled to do any of a myriad of things they know they shouldn’t can be encouraged to be curiously aware when the urge hits them. To paraphrase an old adage: Curiosity becomes its own reward.

And now we return to the Internet. Do you surf or check your email when you’re bored, or lonely, or just feel you have to? And then feel bad about all the time you’ve wasted, and what else you could have accomplished, but didn’t?

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Brewer suggests trying instead to be curiously aware of what’s happening in your body and mind at that moment. You’ll have the chance either to “perpetuate one of our endless and exhausting habit loops—or step out of it.”

He concludes:

“Instead of ‘see text message, compulsively text back, feel a little better,’” he says, do this:

“Notice the urge, get curious, feel the joy of letting go. And repeat.”

How does all of this strike you? Do you find it feasible? Are you tempted to try it? Do you have stories to share about how you have overcome bad habits—or have failed to do so?

Annie

12 thoughts on “From Three Cookies to One–or None: How Do We Break Our Bad Habits?

  1. Yes, interesting how we should line up writing about a similar topic last night.

    Albeit, I was re blogging a post I had written 9 years ago.

    Yes, smart phones and Internet social networking is something else we can add to the long line of human addictions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmmm, this is something that I could stand to look into. As a former smoker, I understand compulsion and addiction and I sometimes notice the same thing going on with screen time.

    I should also put this to work when my brain rebels against my current diet. Even one cookie sounds really good right now. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s funny that you started with “Hmmm.” At one point, Brewer talks about that as his new meditative chant word, replacing “Ommmm” because it suggests curiosity. So you’re on the right track!

      How about one-quarter of a cookie, hmmmm?

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Hi, JP–

      This is the comment that WP wouldn’t let me put on your blog anniversary post. And even after accepting my short note to you, it wouldn’t let me like your post.

      Hi, JP—

      Congratulations on your fourth blogging anniversary—with nary a repeat. And I’m very pleased that you’ve used the occasion in part to respond to my nominating you for the Versatile Blogger Award. I do recognize—and share—your reservations about this awards practice. However, as a relative newcomer to this enterprise, I was delighted to receive two such awards in rapid succession—and to pass the honors on to those whom I found deserving. However, flattering though such recognition is, I doubt I’d go through it again. In your contrarian fashion, you’ve managed to skip the most time-consuming and difficult process of identifying and notifying nominees, while democratizing said process by opening it up to a wider audience. So kudos to you for your cleverness!

      You mentioned our friendship, which supersedes our vastly different political views. May I remind you that there have been several issues on which we’ve agreed? I distinctly recall one of my responses to you being: “JP: We have to stop agreeing like this!” But despite our obvious differences, I think we hold similar views on important matters: we both love our country and revere the Constitution, and we both highly value civility and respecting those who hold divergent views. Although in my more optimistic moments I believe there are many more people like us out there, it is admittedly difficult to hear our voices above the din.

      As to your blog, I always learn from you and enjoy your well-researched articles—except for the one about lawnmowers. But that’s a quibble. I love your music endeavors with accompanying aural examples, but I’ve happily followed you through long treatises on old cars—much to my amazement. And as you know, I was so enamored of your reverie of your piano recital gone awry that I was inspired to write my own post about “My Freeze Moment.” I enjoyed our repartee about that one.

      As an aside, in my growing up years, we always had Studebakers, which my father invariably named Becky—possibly thinking of Becky the Studebaker (and thereby setting his daughter on the road to a penchant for bad puns and near rhymes). One was a two-toned version of colors referred to as “chadron and beige,” and I have yet to find out the chadron derivation (it was a salmon color). However, I do not share your indifference to cigar smoke. My father smoked his cigars while driving “defensively,” as he called it, which meant excessively braking. That combination detracted from my happy memories of childhood excursions, which invariably left me seriously carsick. (Fortunately, my dad had many other redeeming values.)

      You and I also share myopia, but I am fortunate that I precociously developed cataracts a few years ago and now can read the tiniest print without glasses. My implanted lenses give me monovision, which means my left eye views distance and my right eye provides excellent reading without glasses. (I use glasses for driving at night; otherwise I need none.) The contact lenses I wore from my teenage years were also monovision: the brain takes in the differing images and fuses them seamlessly, in one of the amazing wonders that the human brain can do. Not all people find monovision as comfortable as I have, but if you want to have another go at contacts, you may want to check with your ophthalmologist to see if you can try monovision.

      Good luck with your diet! Remember to regard each morsel with curiosity: “Hmmmm,” and perhaps the pounds will melt away.

      Best regards, and cheers to my friend,

      Annie

      Like

  3. Annie — love the idea of cultivating curiosity in general and especially as a means to self-improvement. Jump to curious instead of fear and loathing and my goodness, I can just imagine the better outcomes! I’m going to take this as my mantra going forward and conduct a one-week experiment to see what happens. Thanks for the inspiration (as always!) and keep writing. You have become a touchstone for me when I need my buoying dose of intellect, sanity, and kindness. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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