The New Year has begun! Every new year brings along with it the vibe of a fresh start and of new beginnings. Perhaps, that’s how the whole idea of new year ‘resolutions’ came in. The philosophy behind resolutions seems to be to infuse us with freshness and zeal , to make one change that will see us being happier and healthier in the next year. Some of you may have made your resolutions and are probably trying to keep up with them. Many of us, throughout the year, attempt to form new habits or to break old ones. Both forming and breaking habits involve a whole lot of psychological connotations. For now, let’s pick one habit that many of us share a love-hate relationship with – a food habit. Just about any food habit. Be it a tendency to reach for the bars of chocolate as soon as you reach home or munching on fries and wafers for hours together. The importance of eating healthy and caring about food habits stares us in the face everyday, through newspapers, the internet and somewhere, even through our own bodies. What does it take to break an unhealthy food habit? To deal with a craving for food? ‘Self-control’ is what intuitively comes to mind.
How can this self-control be defined? How can it be achieved? As a first step towards understanding how we can break food habits, let’s first look at what happens to us while we are in the habit. Before trying to step out of the frame, let’s first take a gentle look at the picture, as it exists.
What really happens to us when we ‘Redo’ what we want to Stop?
Let’s imagine a scenario:-
You know internally that you wish to begin eating healthy. You wish to take care of yourself. Yet, everyday, immediately after you are back home after a long day’s work, you tend to overeat. You serve yourself more than you would’ve liked to…and also take a few extra helpings. Even at work, you seem to order fast food at least twice a day. Somewhere you know this is not what you wish to do, but its all muddled up. You want to break the habit, you want to eat healthy…but you also badly want the food because it makes you feel so good! But, there’s something more happening in there. Let’s get to know this better.
The next time you seem to break the rule and redo the ‘habit’, take a minute that very moment, tune into yourself and zoom in. How are you likely to be feeling? Chances are you’d feel restless within. Some sense of agitation exists within you, prompting you to get the pizza asap. At that point, your mind is in a state of unsettled urgency, or need. You want the food right away, more as a means of making yourself feel good. One very important thing here is, states of craving put our not only our emotions but also our brains in urgency mode. Our brain is physiologically tuned to ‘react’ as soon as it receives signals of urgency. When there is a sharp pang of need (and here, I do not mean actual physical hunger), the mind pushes the body into action, hence making you order the burger before you are able to think through. To sum it up, you haven’t had the space to ‘evaluate’ your need before reacting to it. Between impulse and response, there doesn’t exist a space where you can actually evaluate how you will respond to the impulse. Yet, the only thing that we always have in our hands (even if at times, we do not wish to acknowledge it) is choosing how we will respond.
What then do we need to do to create this Space?
Well, interestingly, when we try to break a habit, we often target the impulse, or the craving. ‘Why am I so hungry always?’, ‘I will try and just not look at the food!!’ are a few things we tell ourselves, and even say out loud sometimes. We fight the craving, hoping it succumbs to our will and dies out. However, many a time, the craving is far too powerful compared to our will. Or, let me put it like this..the more we try and suppress the craving, the larger it looms on our minds….and our will. You try and fight the craving, eventually you give in to it, and then you feel terribly upset with yourself for having failed yet again. With time, this becomes a cycle that repeats itself over and over. If we need to change our food habits, we need to intervene and change the cycle. The craving seems to be the starting point of it all. So, we naturally wish to extinguish the cycle at the stage of craving itself. However, what seems to be rather clear after a number of failed attempts at changing food habits is (I have my share too :)), it seems rather apparent that fighting the craving is not working….definitely not from a long term perspective. An alternative and less pressurizing idea is not to change the craving, but to alter your response to that craving. A craving is a natural state of mind. It is beyond your control. Moreover, it is used to being there in your system. It won’t go, even if you push it. So, don’t fight the craving. You don’t necessarily need to do that. Let the craving be.
Instead of trying to fight the craving, just acknowledge and accept it. The next time you sense a pang of craving, or even before you actually sense the craving, try and create an ambience of acceptance. Tell yourself it is okay to feel a craving. The more you accept the craving or the impulse, the lesser you will have to fight against it. Now, you can look at it and work with it.
‘What can I do when I feel the Craving for Food? Let’s say I am able to Accept Cravings as a part of my Mind…’
Once you have accepted the craving, you will automatically feel some sense of calming down within your body. Then, for a few minutes, stay with the feeling. Maybe the pangs will hit harder. Try to simply observe what is happening to you, like you are a compassionate spectator to yourself. Sense your breath, your heartbeats and whatever else comes into awareness. (This sounds like a really long process, but in reality, doesn’t take more than a few moments). This way, you are mindful. You aren’t pushing the craving for food away, but are observing it and yourself. You have chosen to observe yourself instead of reaching out for the food. In a way, you have already altered your response. More so, you have bought yourself some ‘space’. When you feel a little calmer internally, check with yourself, ‘do you really want to do this?’ Chances are, the intensity of the pangs or cravings might have reduced. Now, you are at a better space to decide what you will do. You can then take a conscious decision about whether you will go order a pizza, or wait…for a healthier meal ! 🙂
To sum it up, if you create a little mindful space between your craving and your response, it will help you choose your response with more awareness…
Hope this has helped. Do share your thoughts and ideas with us through your comments. Also, if you know anybody who would benefit from reading this article, please do share it with them
Image Credit: joo0ey
About the Author: Malini Krishnan is part of the team of psychologists at Inner Space – A center for counseling and psychological assessment. Sadia Raval is the Founder & Chief Psychologist.