So many people struggle to do healthy behaviors, such as eating right and exercising, even though they are fully aware of the consequences of not doing them. What does this say about us as a society? Perhaps, that people would benefit more from a psychologist than a personal trainer. That is because much of this resistance occurs in the mind. In this case, the flesh is willing, but the mind is weak.
People have evolved from early hunter-gatherers, where strong survival instincts dictated cravings. The problem is that as society evolved, those same instincts have not. This leads people to crave and consume things that they do not need to survive. The brain chemistry of our ancestry remains the same.
The brain’s strong reward-processing center is where cravings are born. Cravings are a strong subconscious desire for something. Desire for reward is initiated in the part of the brain that reacts. It reacts to a stimulus, and that reaction forms a thought. This thought introduces that substance or activity to your mind.
This process is all automatic, but from here, you have a choice. You can dwell on that thought and create a longing for it, or you can activate the conscious thinking part of your brain, and neutralize that thought. Without actively becoming aware of this process, the brain will help you to reason why you need to indulge the craving. This can be quite compelling.
The reward system will lock in a target behavior or substance, which triggers the brain to release dopamine. Now that the reward cycle is started, you begin to associate pleasure with that behavior or substance. The longing for immediate gratification is so strong, that it inhibits the thinking part of the brain from being activated, leaving you at the mercy of your reactionary hindbrain.
To make matters worse, the body will also release stress hormones to make the craving more compelling. You now, not only associate that behavior or substance with pleasure, but you also associate not having it, with pain. Once this cycle is started, the cards begin to stack against you. This cycle can even be more compelling during times of stress or discomfort, as the brain will actively seek a way to numb those emotions.
Nevertheless, not all is lost, you do have some control over this situation, but it is highly dependent on your ability and willingness to activate the thinking part of your brain. While not your natural inclination, you can choose to activate your thinking prefrontal cortex and begin ruminating on your long-term goals. This choice will create an equal fight for your attention. In the end, you will still have to choose which you desire most. Purposely activating the prefrontal cortex will give you a fighting chance to make smarter choices.
Consider that you crave what your body has become used to having. When you have a craving, it is from the activation of that reward-processing center. You begin to recreate that feeling of reward, which you would gain from indulging the craving. This builds the longing, and often leads to overindulgence in that substance or behavior. The brain knows what it has experienced before, and if you create any type of pleasurable habit that is what the brain will introduce in the form of a craving.
At this point, you may be thinking of food, drugs, alcohol, or nicotine, but it could just as easily be sitting on the couch in front of the TV. Anything that creates pleasure, or a sense of reward, can cause strong cravings. This is because the brain "learns" to anticipate that reward. You actually begin to evaluate your activities and choices on the subconscious anticipated reward it will bring.
This can be anything that has at one time has given you a subconscious reward or bout of pleasure. Basic things like food, shopping, internet usage, tech gadgets, social media, or going out, can trigger this response. Think about the things you do instead of eating healthy or exercising. Those are habits, and the brain will remind you that is what it desires. Thus, the craving cycle begins and your subconscious is now in control.
The more often you indulge that behavior or substance, the stronger your mental connection will become to it. Think, whatever you feed grows, and whatever you starve dies. Keeping feeding that behavior and it will only gain more power over you. Once you stop indulging your cravings, they will begin to decrease.
To further combat the cravings cycle, you can begin creating negative associations. Dwelling on that uncomfortable “after-feeling” you had the last time you indulged in that behavior. By attaching that behavior to the consequences, and not the reward, you can begin to rewire how your subconscious will react to it. You can then begin to reprogram your mind to develop reward signals for behaviors you are trying to cultivate.
Things like focusing on the runners high you get after a good run or stepping on the scales and seeing the number go down. Next time you are faced with an unhealthy craving, purposefully switch that thought to a healthy reward you want even more. Consider this, whichever thought you spend time seeing in your mind, is the one you will most likely carry out through your actions.