Defusing Junk Cravings

I stumbled across something very welcome today: a neat trick for overcoming impulses to put junk into my life. Driving past a Taco Bell on my way to work, the urge for a wonderful and sweet Starburst slushie overtook me; it was strong enough that I almost pulled into the plaza then and there. But, something just clicked in my mind, and I drove past without succumbing. What happened?

It was actually very confusing at first. I didn’t realize how this craving, this need, had suddenly gone almost completely away.

Trying to recall exactly the pattern of thoughts that my mind was running at the time, it hit me: I’d shifted my perspective on it.

In psychology (and self-help), the concept is called ‘reframing’ or just ‘framing’; it’s how you view the world, the frame of view you see the world through.

As an example: you can see a bench with weights on it, and your friend can see it as well. Maybe your friend had an accident lifting in the past, and the sight gives him a shiver down his back, a slightly fearful feeling that makes him want to stay away. And, maybe you recently set a personal record on the bench press, and want to go bench press some more, and you’re drawn to the weights.

Same thing, two vastly different reactions, all stemming from two different perspectives—frames.

So what frame did I abruptly view the sweet, sugary drink in?

First, I saw it as a sweet, sweet reward and relief. I wanted that sugar, that strawberry taste in my mouth, the cool ice sliding up the straw, a frozen Starburst taking up residence on my taste buds. I needed that now.

Something just snapped into place, and my brain swung around and tilted my metaphorical vision sideways.

Suddenly, instead of seeing a pink drink full of sweetness and strawberry flavor, I saw a pink pile of chemically-engineered, profit-making, mind-weakening bait, specially designed to trip all those pleasure levers in your brain and release an overload of pleasurable neurotransmitters, washing you away in dopamine until you want, need, crave that next sip.

I don’t want that.

I don’t want to train my brain to crave dopamine (among other
neurotransmitters) in amounts that can’t be found normally: walking along the creek next to my house, spending time with my girlfriend, writing, exercising, sleeping, eating home-cooked chicken noodle soup and drinking a pot of high-quality looseleaf tea.

So I went from seeing this sweet treat, an amazing and cold way to improve my day—to seeing something that would dim my enjoyment of the things I like more and do more of, something that would make my willpower, brain, and body weaker, unlike exercise (which I’d be less likely to do in future, compared to getting that treat).

It’s a useful little mental trick, that nevertheless might take a little time to build.

This didn’t happen as suddenly as the story tells it, in reality.

I’ve been studying (very amateur-ishly and lightly) neuropsychology, and began seeing the links between our motivation, neurotransmitters, and the actions we take.

It became instinctive knowledge to me that certain actions (consumption of food, for instance, and especially sugars) spike dopamine in the brain, just like it’s instinctive for me to swing a tennis forehand now.

It became instinctive knowledge that we don’t do things we’d rather do (exercise, eat well, etc) in favor of things that are impulses to us (junk food, sweets, TV, reddit), and that it’s an ongoing fight to wrest control back from those impulses.

From there, the leap was made, I guess, and my brain collected all that knowledge together subconsciously and struck out like a lightning bolt with it, literally!*

Now that I think about it, this is probably the instinct that you develop when you gain more knowledge in a specific field; you just get a feel for certain things and you look at and do things in a different way.

I also realize: this is a concept that has been repeated again and again in some self-help topics, especially dieting. See that delicious chocolate cake? Now imagine it as sugar running through your veins, making your body work overtime to produce insulin… etc etc.

I write this anyway in the hope that it helps the concept click with somebody (as well as to write, since I like writing!); sometimes, concepts that I’d read about didn’t really resonate with me until I read them presented in a certain way.

So, to recap: to defuse cravings for junk specifically, use a technique from psychology called ‘reframing’ (also used to help people with depression be happier) and see the craving in a new light: a food/TV show/drink/activity specifically designed to take advantage of your neurological and psychological weaknesses.


*Brain cells communicate by sending pulses of electricity between themselves. That concept in itself was mind-blowing cool to me when I learned that!

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