The word “craving” is typically automatically associated with unhealthy choices. Before I learned about how the human body works, “craving” had a really negative connotation in my mind. To me, a craving was temptation to give into something unhealthy. But wouldn’t it be amazing if your cravings could be super healthy instead of self sabotaging? Good news, they can be. You just have to train your brain that way.
Those cravings you have for unhealthy things come from the process of conditioning your brain – which you did. You have actually trained your brain, whether you knew you were doing it or not. So if that’s possible, then it has possible for you to train your brain to crave a healthier means to satisfaction, right?
Your Brain and Cravings
I love learning about how the brain and body work, so stick with me for a minute while I nerd out a little bit. It’s really important for you to understand this process if you want to change your habits. It’s a series of chemical reactions in your brain that create these cravings and keep them coming back. When you see or think about a tasty treat, for example, your brain starts releasing dopamine. That’s the chemical that makes us believe that we will get satisfaction from that treat. That dopamine saturates our brain, drowning out the part of our brain that helps us consider our long-term goals or anything sensible, really.
Then, to make matters worse, our brain starts releasing stress hormones that bring on anxiety and slight discomfort. It’s pulling out all the stops to make sure we believe that we’re just not going to be okay without giving into this craving. Then, if we give in, we’re satisfied and our brain creates more dopamine, reinforcing that entire process so it will happen all over again next time. But why the heck do our own brains sabotage us like this?
Well, in our brain’s defense, it’s just trying to make us happy. If you had never tasted that tasty treat before (or something similar it), then your brain wouldn’t have that reaction to it. Anything that creates a feeling of pleasure in the body triggers the release of that dopamine. Then your brain stores away that memory because it added to your happiness.
Dopamine is an instant gratification chemical. Unfortunately, your brain prioritizes instant gratification over long term goals. This comes from the emotional side of your brain and we know that emotions should be a gauge, not a guide. So without super intentional behavior and decision making, it can seriously hinder our long term results and happiness.
How to Train Your Brain to Crave Healthy Things
After reading that last section, you might be thinking that it sounds like our brains are faulty equipment. In reality, this is more of a user error issue. Our brains and bodies are capable of incredible things. But we’re basically driving around a Lamborghini and acting like it’s just a Buick. Some of us will never find out just what our Lamborghini’s are capable of because we either don’t understand what we really have, we just don’t believe it, or we are just feeling too stuck to deal with it. Whether you believe it or not, knowing what we know about our brains and bodies today, we are more capable than ever of living optimally.
The process of training your brain to crave healthy things is actually pretty simple. You just have to attach the promise of a reward to the thing you want to crave or habit you want to create. Sure, the unhealthy things give us happiness (however fleeting), but the healthy things do too. And the healthy choices tend to give us longer lasting happiness. So the trick here is to intentionally teach your brain to believe this instead of mindlessly following your emotions.
Pay attention to how your feel after making an unhealthy choice and then how you feel after a healthy choice. For example, you decided to spend every evening for a week on the couch watching Netflix. No doubt you felt sluggish, seriously low on energy and motivation, mental fog, etc. Or maybe you ate a whole carton of ice cream. It was good while you were eating it, then you immediately felt a drop in energy, maybe nausea, definitely guilt, etc. Take note of those feelings. Take literal notes. Write it all down, the action and the result.
Then pay attention to how you feel when you make the decision to workout. You probably feel a sense of accomplishment, empowerment, and a spike in energy. When you eat a healthy meal you probably feel energized and clear headed. Write all that down. The act of writing it down is an important part of how you train your brain. You memory of that feeling is important to keep fresh.
It’s super weird because your brain is in your head. It’s not like you’re trying to convince a different person standing in front of you. You have to convince yourself, your own brain inside your head. It’s strange. It’s not as simple as reading this blog post. Just because the information is in your brain now, it doesn’t mean that your brain will just put it into practice. There’s a process you have to follow through with in order to create a change. Even though it might be hard and requires commitment, it is possible for anyone, even you!
Repetition and consistency are key to creating a new habit. Exercise, for example, releases endorphins. Endorphins and dopamine are closely related. They are both a part of the four chemicals responsible for our happy feelings (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins). So when we exercise we get a similar reaction in the brain to when we eat cake and get a flood of dopamine. Repeated exercise then, would create a craving for what keeps feeding that release of endorphins.
So essentially, it’s not the source (the unhealthy or unhealthy choice) of what releases this group of happy chemicals that we are craving. It’s the chemicals themselves. The emotional part of our brain doesn’t really care about the source. It just learns to crave the things that we have provided that facilitated the release of those happy chemicals. So when we intentionally choose to create a habit out of operating with the sensible part of our brains instead of letting the emotional part drive, we provide healthier sources to facilitate that release. Then the emotional part of your brain is satisfied and the sensible part of your brain is happy because you’re reaching your long-term goals.
Recap: Remember These Things
- Your brain doesn’t care what facilitates the release of happy chemicals, so don’t get caught up believing that only the bad stuff can satisfy you. It might not be what you and your brain are used to, but healthy choices can be just as enjoyable as bad ones and provide more long term enjoyment.
- Repetition and consistency create cravings and habits for bad and good things. It’s up to you which one you multiply.
- Intentionally living to please the sensible part of your brain will eventually lead to more short-term and long-term happiness and contentment. You just have to train your brain to recognize healthy choices as facilitators for the release of those happy chemicals.
- Creating cravings for healthy choices will not eliminate cravings for unhealthy choices entirely, but it will create that healthy balance we all need.