How to Manage Cravings

Whether it's sugar, caffeine or a large glass of something cold, when does a want become a need? When does a need become a craving?

Cravings can be anything from a minor irritation to something intense and overwhelming. But what is a craving? We often use the term, but what does it really mean? What is happening that causes us to think or feel that way? And why do we often crave the things we know are bad for us, or that move us away from what we are trying to achieve?

The answer? Conditioning

Conditioning is the theory that the reaction ('the response') to an object or event ('the stimulus') by a person can be modified by learning (Psychologist World, 2017). Plainly, if we have learnt a certain response to a certain stimulus, and that is pleasurable or rewarding (increases a positive feeling or reduces a negative feeling), we will associate that stimulus as having a positive outcome (i.e. Chocolate makes me feel better, not chocolate will not help me achieve my long-term goal of been a size 12). It is often the immediate response (feel better) that wins out over the longer term response (lose weight). The stronger the belief in the immediate response and the stronger the need for it, the stronger the craving.

Are you following me so far?

So, if the way we think about a stimulus can affect the level of craving we experience. What about the way we talk about it? Can this influence the level of craving?

Have you ever heard the term “I’ll believe it when I see it”? The idea that once we see something it becomes real to us. What about “I’ll believe it when I hear it”, the idea that when we hear something we believe it to be true.

Say you offered me a cigarette and I said "No thank you I don't smoke", you and I would consider me a non-smoker. If however I said "I am trying to quit", you may no longer consider me a non-smoker, but someone considering change and not yet clear on what will happen.

In the first incident what you heard demonstrated a clear goal not to smoke. In the second I could be considered contemplative and perhaps open to persuasion. Out of the two responses who do you think is more likely to experience cravings? The person who hears themselves say “I don’t smoke”, or the person who is “trying to stop”. The language we use, often unconsciously, can play a huge role in our level of craving.

So, if the way we think about a stimulus influences the level of craving, and the way we talk about a stimulus also influences the level of craving. How do we better manage these often difficult responses?

In my view there a two different and equally effective options dependent on where you are and what you are trying to achieve.

Option 1 - Shut It Down

A craving can only exist if you are focusing on it, or the desired action (e.g. drinking). If you are not thinking about it or being reminded of it, the craving will disappear. Instead focus the mind on something else and/or remove yourself from the situation that is prompting you to crave.

This will manage the craving in that moment, but it is not changing the conditioned response to the stimulus. Here you are just dealing with the immediate discomfort of the craving.

Option 2 - Open It Up

Allow the craving in, but rather than feeling it you are watching it, as if it is happening to someone else. Listen to the thoughts you are having and see if you agree with them. Ask questions like; Are these thoughts rational? Do they fit with what I am trying to achieve (the bigger picture)? Would acting on the thoughts get me closer to where I want to be? What would I lose if I acted on them?

In order for the above option to work you must first have to be clear on what it is you are trying to achieve, why you are trying to achieve it and what the expected outcome is if you do achieve it. If this becomes more important to you than the previously 'conditioned response' the craving has lost its power and the new learning will become the new 'conditioned response'.

If you want to learn more about changing unhelpful or addictive behaviour, or you would like more support around managing craving please see the treatment section at to view our programmes. Or contact us via the contact page to book your first appointment.


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