In many situations, it’s pretty clear what a body-intelligent response involves: Eat when hungry, rest when tired, move when stagnant and pause when you feel pain.
However, there are times when the signals from our body get a bit out of whack. Cravings for unhealthy food or addictive substances are one example.
Imagine you are trying to improve your diet and you experience a craving for more caffeine, a high-sugar snack mid-afternoon, or alcohol at the end of the day. How should you ‘respond’?
Here’s what I have found helpful, for myself and my coaching clients, when attempting to make healthier choices in the face of cravings. It still uses the basic steps of notice, listen and respond, but includes some extra nuances to help you respond in a body-based way, rather than a rule-based or automatic-habit way
Because cravings can creep up on you and quickly hijack the conscious choices you’d prefer to make, it’s really helpful to practise noticing and naming the craving. So when you first feel an impulse for more chocolate, wine or coffee, call it out. “Ah, there you are, got you.” Calling it out starts to bring the urge into your conscious awareness and is the first step in disabling cravings.
Keeping a diary that tracks when, where and how your cravings occur, even before trying to change your behaviour, is really powerful. You’ll get to know your high risk times for being lured astray and as well as the exact way you experience a craving. For some it could be an idea popping into your head, the anticipating of how great you think you’ll feel or the food will taste, or it could be like a micro-movie playing out a scene. Notice the message that accompanies the craving and call that out too. “So you are trying to tell me how great this coffee will be or my energy, but you’re not telling me about the crash I’ll have a few hours later, or the effect on my sleep tonight.” Or, simply “Liar, liar, pants of fire.”
Listening means making a genuine effort to understand the messages from your body.
There are 2 levels of listening you can experiment with.
Level 1: Listening to the craving itself
The next time you notice a craving, see if you can find a quiet place to sit it out while practising conscious awareness, without judgement, of everything that makes up your craving – all the body sensations, emotions and accompanying thoughts. Breaking a craving down into its constituent parts, helps you see what you are dealing with, whether that’s a certain thought (‘Gee I really need this!’), a body-based urge (maybe related to tiredness or stress) or an emotion (sometimes eager anticipation). You might find that the craving is taking place mainly in your mind, or it’s very much a physical sensation that is uncomfortable that you are seeking relief from. Keep a journal – you’ll learn lots!
The ability to sit out a craving takes quite a strong intention, so if you can, experiment with it when you know your energy reserves and willpower area likely to be higher, not when you are very stressed or tired.
Even taking 30 seconds in the moment to catch a craving, then pause and listen, is helpful
Level 2. Listen beneath the craving
If you do manage to create a few minutes to sit out a craving, use the last minute to see if you can feel what is happening beneath the immediacy of the urge for instant gratification. This is about creating space to allow the intelligence of the body to speak to you. You could try a question such as: is there anything you want me to see or feel? Be still and wait. Don’t worry if nothing arises, what matters is creating the space for a deeper awareness to emerge over time
Responding to a craving intelligently requires more than a knee-jerk consumption of the desired goods. You want to tap into prior knowledge to help you make an informed choice that will leave your body feeling good, not just in the minutes after ingesting a substance but in the hours and even following days. When I talk about prior knowledge, I don’t just mean information that tells you this food or drink is bad for you. I mean body-based memories of how it feels in your body when you eat or abstain from certain foods and drinks.
So the big challenge is to pause for long enough to be able to ask your body, (not your mind) if it wants this food, drawing on your body’s past experience.
For example, let’s say you want your third coffee for the day because it’s the mid-afternoon slump and you need a hit to get you through the rest of the day. In the past when you have had three coffees in a day you feel jangly, even a little anxious. If, before you buy your third coffee, you pause and ask your body if it wants another coffee, you might be able to tap into the body memory of unpleasant jangliness, and hear a ‘no’ from your body. This is very different to a head-based rule that says you shouldn’t. It’s embodied information that can help you respond in a body-wise manner.
Pausing in the moment of choice is quite a high level skill and I don’t want to make it sound easy, but even just beginning to pause long enough to ask your body what it thinks about your choice, is worth experimenting with.
Exceptions? What if you are in the process of freeing yourself from a dieting mentality , and you have decided to allow yourself to eat whatever you feel like, including some previously forbidden foods? This is a great process to go through – moralistic good/bad thinking about food invariably leads to disordered eating. Still, it will take a conscious effort to not just stuff the desired donut, but to actually taste the food. So when you get to ‘respond’ you’re your urge to eat, slow it down, eat with awareness by engaging all your senses. This will allow you to
- get more pleasure out of the food,
- stop when you have had enough, and
- sometimes begin to realise that your favourite forbidden food doesn’t actually taste as good as you thought it did!