Cravings can come for many things. Some people crave food, often those with high levels of sugar, salt or fat. Some people crave alcohol, tobacco or drugs. Still others crave shopping, gambling, sex or even technology in the form of online gaming or social media usage.
Although some cravings are the human body’s response to a need for nutrients — pregnant women, for example, are well known to have various cravings because of the nutritional needs of childbearing — the cravings are coming from the brain. That was one of the key messages from the Infinite Mindcare Talk Series meeting on April 21 at Books & Books.
Infinite Mindcare Clinical Director/Psychotherapist Sutton Burke said cravings are triggered by various stimuli. People, places, things, thoughts, smells and certain environments can all trigger a craving, she said.
“A craving is an urge, an obsession of the mind and body at the same time for something that makes you feel better when you’re not feeling so great.”
Giving into cravings, however, can have negative consequences on a person’s health, appearance, employment and financial well-being. Cravings can become addictions if people continue to satisfy them despite the negative consequences.
Acknowledging a craving is important, but so is understanding it.
Dr. Lili Wagner, a psychologist with Infinite Mindcare, said cravings come from the reward centre of the brain. When a person experiences something pleasurable, dopamine — an organic chemical that functions as a neurotransmitter and is associated with pleasure — is increased in the brain.
“The memory part of the brain makes sure it remembers what made you feel good,” said Wagner. “It becomes a habit loop that we create.”
Once a pleasure habit is formed, dopamine can be increased in the brain by just thinking about the pleasurable experience, Wagner said. People naturally want rewards and by satisfying their cravings, they condition their brains to want the object of the cravings more.
“The more we solidify the behaviours the more we solidify the habit loop and the harder it is to get out of it.” Getting out of a solidified habit loop is easier said than done.
“Discipline isn’t really going to help,” Wagner said. “It’s not that simple. You need to address and treat the root cause.”
The root cause of cravings is usually the result of an unmet need, said Dallas Dralle, another psychotherapist with Infinite Mindcare.
Depression, anxiety, stress, a family history of addiction, trauma and abuse can all trigger cravings that help us cope by bringing the brain pleasure.
“We can learn very unhealthful coping strategies even when we’re young,” Dralle said. Non-food cravings, such as those for gambling, social media, email, or binge watching television all operate in the same way, Dralle said, noting that people should be mindful of the signs that something is becoming more of a problem than just satisfying a craving. Depending on the behaviour associated with the craving, those signs can include weight gain, health problems, missing work, sleep deprivation, eye strain, financial trouble and even legal trouble.
“You have to look at the negative consequences,” she said, adding that people need to be careful not to go into denial. “You can have people who are functioning with alcoholism, but it’s a surface level functioning.”
Focusing on alcoholism, Dralle outlined the differences of use, misuse and abuse of alcohol. “Use is simply ingesting alcohol. Misusing alcohol is using alcohol to the point that there are negative consequences. Abusing alcohol is when a person continues to use alcohol in a patterned way in spite of the negative consequences.”
KICKING THE HABITS
Once habit loops are entrenched and cravings become a problem, people need to acknowledge the cravings and deal with them, Wagner said.
“They don’t just magically go away.” One thing people can do is start avoiding people, situations, places or other stimuli that trigger cravings, she said.
“For example, if you crave ice cream, don’t walk down the ice cream aisle. Some things are unavoidable, but some things we can avoid.” Seeking someone to talk to — a therapist, spiritual guide or sponsor — can help a person deal with an addiction.
“Talk to someone who is going to validate you and not judge,” she said, adding that people can do some “self-talk” or practice mindfulness and meditation, write in a journal or even use some technology — like the Calm app — until cravings pass.
“Most cravings last only 10 to 15 minutes,” Wagner said.