I don’t normally think of myself as anxious. I tend to see the bright side of most things and utilize lots of techniques I’ve picked up over the years to handle stress. But truth be told, every now and then something will happen, and I find my mind spinning out of control. Certain triggers will spark, and I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with a crazy loop spinning like a monkey in my head. How about you? Fortunately this week I listened to an online lecture explaining how our minds work in relationship to habit, addiction and obsession. During that talk I learned about the biological process our minds typically use. Even better I discovered a fairly simple way to reduce any thoughts of worry, fear, anxiety or attachment—including those crazy monkey thoughts in the middle of the night. So, if you prefer a good night’s sleep, or are interested in letting go of any fears or stress that might plague you during the day, you might find it helpful as well.
This relatively new approach comes from neuroscientist and addiction psychiatrist Judson Brewer, PhD. His research and newly published book The Craving Mind explores why and how people become addicted to substances and behaviors that are counterproductive to living a happy and healthy life. Using his over 20-year background and research at Yale, MIT and Brown University, combined with his mindfulness training, he has developed a technique that gets to the root of our obsessions—and from there can reduce, change or even eliminate them all together. And even though the majority of us might not find our attachments to be problematic, I doubt there are any of us that are completely free of repetitive negative thoughts or behaviors that work against us.
Brewer defines addiction as doing something over and over “despite adverse outcomes.” That could be as simple as a stress related thought in the middle of the night that won’t let me get back to sleep—to something as destructive as alcoholism, binge eating or compulsive gambling. Even blindly eating that slice of chocolate cake or handful of potato chips to mask our uncomfortable feelings, qualifies. What about buying a new pair of shoes (or two) when our credit cards are already maxed out just to make ourselves feel better? Or how about when we spend 20-60 minutes on Facebook distracting ourselves when we have a pile of work that demanding our attention? It’s fairly clear that even when we know better, we don’t always do better. Why is that?
According to Brewer our minds are biologically set up to learn and then habitually repeat actions/behaviors that we/it believe are beneficial or rewarding. Think about it. If you are feeling thirsty and a bit lethargic you probably need some water. If you locate a glass of water and drink it you will respond to that water as a reward. Your mind and your body will tell you that it is good to drink water because it not only keeps you alive, it feels good too. That’s something you want (need) to do over and over again.
But in today’s world, where so much is easy and accessible, our brains and our biology use that simple 1) cue, 2) behavior 3) reward against us. Now if we think of ourselves as thirsty (cue) we can just as easily grab a soda (behavior) and that often leads to getting high from the sugar and caffeine (reward). Do that a couple of times and we have developed the habit to drink a soda any time we are feeling thirsty or a bit lethargic. Sure, one soda now and then might not be a problem. But if you start binge drinking sodas (wine, shots of tequila, etc.) every day, that can lead to all sorts of physical and psychological problems. Can you see how this can happen with all sorts of habits—including stress, worry or compulsive anything?
So what can we do about it? Brewer teaches that two common addiction treatments are to either avoid the cues or triggers altogether, or to substitute the behavior for something more helpful. That actually worked for me when I quit smoking over 35 years ago. Instead of getting up and having a cigarette in the morning, I would take a walk with the dog. If I wanted to watch my weight I just stopped buying those RC Colas and kept the house free of those triggers. Unfortunately these options don’t work for everyone. Brewer says that the standard stop smoking treatment promoted by the American Cancer Society is only 5% effective after 30 days. So what is a better option?
According to Brewer the best approach just might be to become mindful. Now I’ve written about mindfulness several times before, so I won’t repeat some of that here. But what Brewer emphasizes is that we use mindfulness to become more aware of the real motivations behind our behaviors and of the reward (s) we believe we are getting. He also quotes author and teach Jon Kabat-Zinn who explains that mindfulness is, “Paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally.” “Okay,” you might be thinking, “how does that help me to quit smoking, or over eating, or over-stressing in the middle of the night?”
Interesting enough, at least to me, was that Brewer backs up his mindfulness claims with research and practical testing that demonstrate how his version of mindfulness works.
First off, he says his goal isn’t about eliminating unhelpful behaviors. Instead he wants us to change our relationship to the thoughts and feelings behind the behaviors. In other words, if we get mindful about the root cause of why we do what we do: smoke, drink, overeat, over consume, worry, stress about anything, then with that understanding we can pause, consider the trigger, slowly understand our motivations, and choose something better. Brewer even admits, “We aren’t trying to change behavior…we are attempting to increase awareness.”
Another thing that I felt was unique with his approach is that when we practice true mindfulness we take our thoughts and behaviors much less personally. By doing research and using MRIs to track where addiction and obsessive thoughts show up in the brain, Brewer has come to the conclusion that our habits, obsessions and compulsions come from a strong sense of “ME.” He is able to show pictures of our brains that light up in a specific area when our addiction is being fed. (No matter what that addiction might be.) That same area of our brain lights up and correlates whenever we are focused on anything that we overly identify with or define ourselves as (like getting lots of likes for a photo of ourselves on FB). So, whenever our sense of self is highly activated, this same area of our brain is working hard. But when we meditate and/or become hyper-mindful, the workings of that region of our brain quiets down and goes dark with much less activity. We become more universally aware and less attached. Could it be that when we obsess over Facebook, eating unhealthy food, or stressing in the middle of the night, it is because we are so highly focused on ourselves?
How does that look in real life? Dr. Brewer has developed three different apps that can help increase mindfulness in the areas that he finds problematic: #1 Smoking; #2 Binge eating; and #3 Anxiety. Again, the thinking behind his therapy isn’t to try to get you to stop doing something you are compulsive about. What he attempts to do is to help us daily become more aware of why we are doing what we are doing, and how it really feels in our mind and body so we can mindfully make better choices. According to his research he has an approximate 40% success rate using his techniques in those areas. And in case you are wondering, I’m not getting any kickback whatsoever from providing this information. I just think it is such a great approach that I’m almost tempted to try their free trial and 100% guarantee just to see how it works.
I know that some of us struggle more from addictions than others. But regardless of where we fall on that spectrum, every single one of us has a brain that tends to respond in the same biological ways. That cue-behavior-reward process is alive and strong in each of us regardless of whether we are talking about too being overly attached to Facebook, our Smart phone, or a smoking addition. For those of us who appreciate discovering how our minds work and why we sometimes do things that have “adverse outcomes” even when we know better, this is valuable information. And it is always beneficial and SMART to continue to learn and mindfully expand our awareness each and every day of our lives.
This ad from Weight Watchers shows how the motivations behind our addictions are a big part of why we often eat things that aren’t good for us.