Thorin Klosowski of Lifehacker discusses the definition of cravings, both physical and psychological, and how to turn them from a negative reward response into a positive and useful tool.

Psychological cravings include the feeling you get when you suddenly realize you want a Sloppy Joe or an entire bag of salt and vinegar chips. Two systems in our brains create and tell us how to react to cravings:

  1. First, the reward system identifies a target and causes the brain to release dopamine. This makes the brain believe it will get happiness or pleasure from what you’re craving. This desire for immediate gratification blocks your prefrontal cortex from weighing your long-term goals against the craving. You know the classic image of the angel and the devil on the shoulder? That’s essentially your brain when you are deciding if you’re going to fold to the pressure of a craving. Your craving is the devil, only thinking about short-term rewards, and the angel is your prefrontal cortex, pleading for you to consider the long-term ramifications.
  2. Next, your body releases stress hormones that make you feel discomfort or pain. The stress essentially tricks the body into believing the only way to feel better is to succumb to the craving.

According to Dr. McGonigal, the brain can learn to attach the promise of reward to almost anything. If your brain believes that something is going to make you happy, your brain can initiate the craving response.

Your instinctive reward system is designed to make you pursue or chase a goal. If you’re trying to start a new habit you want something less abstract than “being healthy” to chase after. Using those cravings to force yourself into accomplishing goals is a great way to provide the temporary reward system needed to establish a long running habit.

There was discussion of this reward response in the book Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky.  It’s part of the stress response.  I don’t have the book with me to reference, but I recall a study where the brain activity of mice was observed in an experiment where the mice could press a lever to get a reward.  The part of the brain associated with the pleasure of receiving the reward was activated upon pressing the lever – in anticipation of receiving the reward.

I try to recognize cravings.  When I crave a trigger food (something not part of my planned diet that will likely lead to fat gain), I try to remember the last time I gorged on junk food and I focus on the disgusting feeling I had after the indulgence.  I also have developed a craving for my workouts.  I try to direct my stress response into anticipation of my next weight lifting session.  Then, when it’s “go time”, I unleash my fury on the iron.

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