I recently read a powerful book called The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Sharon Begley and Jeffrey M. Schwartz MD. In it, Begley and Dr. Schwartz describe a four step process that demonstrates how a person such as your or me can use mindfulness using mindfulness in concert with cognitive techniques to help overcome compulsive behaviors, otherwise known as habits.
This process in the book was explained in the specific context of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but can be applied to any habit you want to overcome. Cravings? Urges? You can break bad habits and form new ones in four steps.
Don’t underestimate the strength of your brain.
Developed at UCLA, the four-step process shows how your cognitive resources and your mindfulness combine to be a powerful intervention.
You have many cognitive resources available to you. These resources include your ability to:
- think about problems
- correctly interpret problems
- solve problems
Many psychological disorders are associated with something referred to as cognitive distortions. Cognitive restructuring is a process of trying to correct cognitive distortions. I don’t use this term to help lull you to sleep, but to help you understand precisely what you are going after. Be aware that Cognitive restructuring is one of 2 key pieces you will need to overcome your habits.
Example of cognitive distortion:
Chronically depressed mood generates a mental statement: “Nobody likes me.”
Correcting this distortion of thinking may help the person experience more positive emotions and be less depressed.
However, cognitive restructuring does not necessarily help people dealing with uncontrollable behavioral responses to urges or cravings.
Example of a habit that is NOT cognitive distortion:
A binge eater knows that binge eating is bad, and that they should not engage in this behavior. However, they still feel a strong craving to engage in the behavior. They feel that indulging the craving will satisfy it in some detectable manner.
A binge eater also knows that indulging the craving will not satisfy it. They know that the craving will probably intensify the more they binge eat. However, they cannot control their behavioral response to the craving. They do not have a cognitive distortion, they know the behavior is not healthy, and they genuinely wish they could stop.
Just helping them understand that binge eating is not healthy will not help them much.
Understanding Mindfulness and How It Works With Your Brain
Mindfulness, the second key to overcoming bad habits, involves activating something often referred to as your internal witness.
A few key things to understand about mindfulness, your internal witness, and how it works:
- Your witness is a manifestation of your mind.
- Your internal witness is typically experienced as separate from your thoughts and emotions.
- Your witness has the ability to observe your thoughts and emotions objectively, without feeling the need to respond to all of them.
- Many areas of your brain are active when your witness is active.
- When your witness is active, you are engaging a powerful state of consciousness.
Your mind is more than just your brain.
Learning how to apply mindfulness involves activating your internal witness. I refer to this type of thinking as using your higher mind. Your higher mind involves your most advanced thinking centers in your brain. These centers require significant energy to function well, and therefore, require regular practice to activate them.
However, training them is well worth the effort.
Essentially, to overcome strong cravings, we have to do 2 things:
- think accurately about the nature of the craving
- amplify our awareness or mindfulness about the source of the craving.
What are craving loops?
A craving loop and its corresponding habitual behavioral response is basically a neural circuit in your brain. It is grooved over time. The longer it has been present, and the more it has been activated, the stronger it becomes. Your brain has a tendency to pick up on repetitive behaviors and then automate them, essentially creating a habit. This is just something the brain does. A neural circuit is just a circuit. It is a pathway of electricity and neurochemicals that activates predictable responses. The pathway itself is not good or bad, it is just a network of brain cells that communicate with each other. It may generate positive thinking patterns and emotions or negative thinking patterns and emotions.
Your neural networks form over time. Most of them are formed in an unconscious manner, meaning, you did not purposely create them. Your unconscious behavioral patterns groove neural networks that, when activated, initiate predictable behavioral responses.
Did you know you CAN consciously build neural networks that initiate the responses you desire?
You have the power to intentionally create the neural networks that provide you with the habits that take you where you want to go.
This is enormously important to understand.
When people believe they have no power over something, they become helpless in the face of it. This is called learned helplessness and it is not associated with desirable outcomes. You have the ability to use the power of your mind to replace maladaptive neural networks with adaptive ones. It is not easy, but it absolutely can be done. You can use mindfulness practices to rewire your brain and create a better future for yourself.
Your 4-Step Mindfulness + Brain Power Process
Step 1) Relabel.
Step one involves how you interpret a craving or desire.
Becoming aware of an unwanted craving as soon as it intrudes into your thinking is very important.
The further the craving gets before you are aware that it is present, the more likely your behavioral response will be whatever is typical for you. A binge eater will eat. Cravings have to be recognized quickly and then relabeled for what they are, a feeling generated by a brain wiring defect.
You are not your craving to binge eat. Your craving to binge eat is just a feeling, it is not you.
You are more than just your brain wiring, and you are more than just your feelings or cravings. The feeling or craving is the problem, and it is due to a wiring defect. It is a bummer to have this defect, but we all have various maladaptive wiring defects. Everyone deals with some form of wiring defect that impacts their behavior. The craving is not your identity, it is just a symptom of the wiring issue. It can be fixed.
Relabeling allows you to experience the craving without reacting emotionally to the discomfort it causes.
The more you can experience the craving impersonally, the less emotionally reactive you will be about the craving. You do not have to accept the craving as having any actual merit. This creates space for you to examine your choices. The craving is not you, it is a simple wiring issue. There is no point in getting emotional about it. The craving is worthless to you.
This does take willpower and conscious effort. Most of our habitual behaviors are happening unconsciously.
You may feel a strong urge to give into the craving, however, you can change this to the insight- “my brain is generating a craving to (name the behavior). What does this feel like? Does this feeling make sense. Don’t I know that this is false?”. These insights, while they seem obvious, often are lost in the power of the craving. Beginning to label the craving properly is an important part of overcoming the craving. This intrusive feeling I am experiencing is due to a brain process, and I am far more than my brain processes.
Basically, you need to understand that the feeling of the craving is the actual disorder. It is caused by a faulty wiring issue. Identify this as quickly as possible and recognize what the feelings are. Use the power of mindfulness to enhance the understanding that you do not need to give into the craving. Make real time mental notes about what you are experiencing. This facilitates a rational perspective about the craving and helps you to not get caught up in the maladaptive behavioral responses that the craving is prompting. Learn to no longer identify yourself with your craving.
Step 2) Reattribute.
Reattribution is an extension of relabeling. Relabeling identifies that the craving is the symptom of the problem and not your identity.
Reattributing the problem is the process of identifying that the problem itself is a brain glitch. This glitch is why you have the problem. The glitch is why you feel uncomfortable. The cravings are not representative of your true self. This craving is due to aberrant messages being generated by an area of faulty wiring.
I really appreciate this quote from the book:
“The brain is going to do what the brain is going to do, but you don’t have to let it push you around.”
Essentially, faulty circuits are going to fire from time to time, and you will feel them. However, you don’t have to let them control your behavioral responses. You have a choice. Reattributing the symptoms immediately upon detection strengthens the cognitive understanding of the true nature of the symptoms. This, in turn, helps separate the symptoms from your identity. The craving is certainly present, and it is being felt, but it is not real. It is just unwanted mental noise. You do not have to satisfy the craving. In fact, you cannot satisfy the craving. Trying to satisfy the craving will be futile. Repetitive attempts to satisfy the craving are stressful and demoralizing. They are a waste of energy.
Relabeling and reattributing reinforce each other. Relabeling provides clarity about what is happening and reattributing identifies why it is happening. You are no longer lost in the problem. You can see it for what it is. You now have some space to work in. However, you cannot just make the craving go away. These first 2 steps are helpful, but they do not solve the problem on their own.
Step 3) Refocus.
Now that you have correctly labeled and attributed the problem. It is time to direct your attention to something other than the problem. This step, refocusing, is where you implement a willful change in behavior. You have recognized the craving as soon as it has manifested itself, you have formed a correct interpretation of the true nature of the craving, now you must refocus your attention to a healthy adaptive behavioral response to the craving.
This is where you begin to substitute an adaptive neural circuit for a maladaptive neural circuit. The ability to direct your attention is essential. You cannot eliminate the craving, but you can initiate a healthy adaptive behavior that is unrelated to the craving, even while the craving is still present. This requires considerable willpower. To direct your focus away from the craving and towards the desired behavior is energy consumptive. It involves putting up some resistance to the craving which is not easy. However, it can be done. The more often it is done, the more likely the new and desirable behavioral response will become automated.
While you are refocusing, you will still experience the feeling of the craving. You will also continue to experience the anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions that accompany the feeling. This still feels very real. Therefore, it is important to refocus on a healthy, familiar, and pleasant type of behavior to replace the undesired behavior. If it is familiar, you will already have the wiring in place, which will make it easier to activate the desired circuit. If pleasant, it will be rewarding to you. If it is healthy, it is adaptive for you. You can try different healthy adaptive behaviors and record what types of responses you get. Journaling about your experiences with your refocusing efforts can strengthen the effectiveness of the process.
You have to believe that willful focused effort does make a difference. You do not have to eliminate the craving entirely to refocus on your desired behavioral response. You will still experience the craving, but it will reduce in intensity. Refocusing will help you not to feel stuck in an undesirable craving loop. It is an exit ramp off of the faulty pathway.
Consider the craving to eat even though you know you are not truly hungry.
As soon as you feel the craving you would identify that the feeling is the actual problem. The feeling is not real, it’s just a faulty message that it is due to faulty wiring. It is not you. You would then direct your attention to your adaptive behavior. It could be any number of things, but for now, let us choose walking outdoors. As you feel the craving, you refocus yourself on going for a walk. It would be best if you can walk for fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes seems to be the necessary amount of time to redirect yourself from the craving. Perhaps sometimes you succeed and go walking, but other times, you end up eating. However, you keep refocusing yourself on going walking whenever you feel the craving to eat. Eventually the craving to eat becomes the thought that you need to go walk. Eventually, it is possible, that when you experience the craving to eat, you find yourself going for a walk without even thinking much about it. The brain is now automating the new habit in response to the craving. The craving is no longer determining your behavioral response, you are. And you have made it a habit.
Cravings and urges are powerful, and are also often associated with addictive substances.
This process is not easy.
It takes effort.
It takes energy.
However, it cannot hurt to try. Being mindful about the nature of a problem and redirecting your attention to possible solutions to the problem is always helpful. Recognizing how much power your will has to direct how your brain functions is very important. You must believe this is possible.
Step 4) Revalue.
Value judgements are assessments of worth.
We can value something by giving it our time, money, effort, attention, or other resources.
How we direct our attention involves how we value things.
We give our attention to what we value.
Wise attention involves seeing things as they really are. Wise attention involves correct interpretations of reality. Revaluing involves the use of wise attention. It is a deep form of relabeling. We assign the correct value to our cravings or negative thought processes, that they are worthless. We see our negative thinking patterns and uncontrollable cravings for what they are, noxious noise from errant neurochemical processes. We also assign the proper value to our healthy adaptive behaviors. We see our healthy adaptive behaviors as pleasurable, life giving, productive, and restorative. We see our cravings as destructive, life taking, and completely false. By continued application of revaluing, we reduce the intensity of our cravings and it takes less effort to resist them and activate the adaptive behaviors we desire. All of our choices reflect value judgements. By applying mindful awareness to the valuing process, you begin to orient your behaviors to those that have actual value and reject those that have no value. This is a very intentional process that involves active will.
There are so many ways you can apply this process to improve your thoughts and improve your behavior. All of them will take effort and energy, but the result will be well worth it. Instead of unconscious thinking and automated habit loops controlling your thoughts and behaviors, you will begin to direct your thoughts and behaviors. This is the opposite of learned helplessness. This is self-efficacy.
You become self-sufficient at managing your own cravings. Neuro-scientific studies of brain function haven proven this to be true. You can use conscious directed effort to reprogram your brain.
You are not just a brain.
You are a human being.
You are a thinking and feeling being.
You have a mind, which is much more than a brain.
You have enormous potential within you.
You can begin to write your own story. You must believe this. You must believe that you have the power to choose. Your brain is standing by waiting for you to direct it where you want to go. It is a powerful instrument when used intentionally and correctly, in accordance with its design. It is time to train that instrument so that it supports you living your best life.