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

Should We Get Smarter With Our Smartphones?

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If you’re like me, you’ve come to regard your smartphone as an appendage. My favorite use of my phone is to replace my memory lapses with instant gratification: Who’s the guy who appears with Steve Coogan in those British “trip” movies—the one who created a tiny voice-in-his-throat “man in the box” that sounds like a ventriloquist who’s swallowed his dummy? Google, google: Rob Brydon. Voila! (If you’ve never seen him, I recommend his offbeat humor and his movies with Coogan.) But I’m veering off-topic.

Because I tend to catastrophize, I occasionally worry what all that zapping with radio frequency radiation is doing to my body—and specifically my head. So I took notice in December when the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issued guidelines on “How to Reduce Exposure to Radio Frequency Energy from Cell Phones.” (Note: there is a link, but it doesn’t seem to work. However, If you Google the title, the article comes right up.)

To be sure, this issue has been around for years, and there’s certainly no consensus among scientists that cellphone use is dangerous, as the CDPH acknowledges. However, a press release on the topic quoted Dr. Karen Smith, the CDPH Director: “Although the science is still evolving, there are concerns among some public health professionals and members of the public regarding long-term, high use exposure to the energy emitted by cell phones.” (Here, too, the link didn’t work. But the press release is titled “CDPH Issues Guidelines on How to Reduce Exposure to Radio Frequency Energy from Cell Phones.” On cdph.ca.gov, it’s dated December 13, 2017.)

If there is a risk, no matter how small, it could affect many people. Roughly 95% of Americans own a cellphone today, and 12% (myself included) use their smartphones daily to access the Internet.

The greatest concern involves children, many of whom start using smartphones by the age of 10 and keep them with them all day long. “Children’s brains develop through the teenage years and may be more affected by cell phone use,” according to Dr. Smith, who encourages parents to consider limits on their kids’ cellphone use and definitely turning them off at night. Continue reading “Should We Get Smarter With Our Smartphones?”