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The Science of Cravings & How to Change Negative Behavior

In a recent podcast, I spoke with Dr. Jud Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at the Brown Mindfulness Center and associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University, executive medical director at Sharecare, as well as a research affiliate at MIT about how our brains form negative behavior patterns, bad habits and addictions, and the specific techniques needed to create lasting change. If you’ve ever wanted to kick your late night sugar cravings to the curb or change a negative behavior, then here’s the science behind our cravings and tips for overcoming them:

So, what exactly happens to your brain when you get a craving? Well, if you think about our ancient ancestors, this goes back to our basic survival mechanisms. Our brains are programmed to remember where food is so we can avoid danger or starvation. After eating, dopamine sends a signal to the brain so we can remember where to find that food source. However, dopamine also sends a signal to the brain in anticipation of food which causes cravings. Our brains learn things depending on how rewarding certain things are. So, if we want to change a behavior, we have to understand how we’ve formed the behavior in the first place.

That’s where mindfulness comes into play. The only way to change a behavior is to change its reward value. This doesn’t come from affirmation, willpower or telling ourselves the behavior is bad for us – it stems from how rewarding that behavior is. Habits are formed by years of rewarding a behavior – so if we can bring awareness to the moment of a behavior, then we can change it by being mindful of exactly how rewarding that behavior is. There are two steps to changing a negative behavior; we need to realize how un-rewarding the behavior is through mindfulness, and then we have to offer a better, more rewarding alternative.

Often times, the anticipation or curiosity of a craving is better than the actual craving itself. So, when you give into a craving and are mindful of how it makes you feel, you might find that it isn’t as rewarding as you anticipated. So, if you’re aware of the behavioral loop – the trigger, the behavior and the result – then you can have a better understanding of exactly how rewarding that habit is. The more often you’re aware of a specific behavior, the faster and easier it will be to change it.

Listen to the entire podcast with Dr. Jud Brewer for more about how to manage anxiety, how to stop letting cravings drive your life and so much more here.