This episode is for you if you have ever had an urge to participate in a habitual behavior where a part of you is all in, but another part of you does not think it is in your best interest. Every human with a brain experiences this cognitive dissonance at some point and has to deal with how to manage the urges that come up.
There are three ways to respond to an urge that correlate with three different emotions
· Reacting to them = impulsiveness
· Resisting them = resistance
· Allowing them = curiosity
I am going to first define what an urge is and then we will explore how it plays out depending on how you choose to respond to it. I will argue my case for why allowing the urge is the best way to handle it when a craving shows up and why we need to rely on curiosity first and foremost when we do that.
What is an Urge?
I have heard urges defined in multiple ways and different language. They have been referred to as cravings, desires, and a compulsive need for something. I think my favorite definition comes from Rachel Hart who describes an urge as an emotion that intensely drives you to do something so your brain can be rewarded with a hit of dopamine and experience temporary pleasure.
In terms of The Alcohol Experiment that I am participating in this month, the dopamine hit would be a glass of wine for me. For you, it might be a piece of chocolate cake, a tasty edible, or a hit off that joint. There is usually what Rachel Hart calls a “witching hour” and this refers to the time of day where you are most likely to experience urges based on your usual pattern of behavior. For example, I am a weekend drinker for the most part and I like to partake in happy hour and early evening drinking. Therefore, that is when I am most likely to get an urge for a glass of wine and pretty much have no trouble refraining from it after the dinner hour. Our brains get used to us doing things certain ways at certain times and find it dangerous and threatening when we do not give them their anticipated reward. They will go to any lengths to try to get you to give them the cake, the chocolate or the usual behavior because they think they are looking out for you and trying to keep you safe. The truth is they are just doing their jobs…they are here to scan the environment for danger and look for rewards for a job well done.
What to do With an Urge
So as I mentioned earlier, we have three options when it comes to how we want to handle an urge. The two most common options humans rely on are either react to it and give in or we resist it and suffer. The third option that is not usually utilized and becomes much easier once we get the hang of it, is to rely on curiosity and allow the urge to be there. This is the only way for us to learn how our brains are working, that an urge is just an emotion, and it cannot make us partake in a behavior without our consent. Before we dig deeper into that though, let’s take a closer look at the first two options.
Reacting to an Urge
Okay, this is pretty much what we normally do if we are not aware or trying to change a behavior. We get an urge for something, and we do it. We don’t understand that between the urge and our reacting to it is a thought that we had that triggered the reaction. For example, this could look like me seeing a piece of cake with a ton of frosting on it and think, Oh my God, I must have it! Other thoughts might be I cannot resist frosting, I am weak when it comes to frosting, or perhaps it is screw it, I deserve to treat myself.
Another example would be when we are trying to learn how to be less judgmental and more generous in how we view others, and we come across a human that is testing our desire for change. Our thought might be dear Lord, I cannot take this person. It could also be it's too hard to try to be good or maybe, I am not capable of changing. All of those thoughts will take us to a place of judgment and intolerance because that is the result we created thinking that way.
While participating in the Alcohol Experiment, I have had many urges to drink a glass of wine. So far, I have not given in to the urge because my thoughts are not aligned with that. My thoughts are aligned with refraining from alcohol for 30 days no matter what, so that is the result I am creating. At any point, my brain could offer me that this experiment is stupid, and I am fine the way I am. It might say I have been good long enough, so go ahead and have just one. If I chose to listen to those thoughts and have a glass of wine, I would be reacting to the urge.
Now before we move on to resistance, we need to understand the result of reacting to our urges. Every time we react to an urge and give into it, we reinforce that desire. We tell the brain that when you want this, I will give it to you and we make that correlation stronger than ever. This is the reason why we might increase our behavior or consumption over time because we become less and less likely to not give into the urges. It becomes a habitual pattern of our brains telling us what it wants and us being controlled by that. Obviously, this is not going to be conducive to stopping the behavior or reducing it without major discomfort and effort.
Resisting an Urge
When we talk about resisting an urge, we are talking about relying on will power to not participate in a behavior or habitual pattern. A good example of this was when I first tried to stop smoking cigarettes in my early 20s. I started smoking as a teen-ager and developed a regular habit before I even graduated from high school. I always had cognitive dissonance around the habit and knew at a deep level that I would not do it long term. I always had this thought that I had to quit smoking before I turned 30, or I would and up being a lifelong smoker. This is the thought my brain offered me and I did not know at the time that many of my thoughts were brain BS. Therefore, when I tried to stop smoking in my early 20s, my brain said wait just a minute, I thought we had until you turned 30! I could still go periods of time without smoking and resisting the urge based on sheer willpower. However, willpower does not last forever and given the thought that I determined it was okay to wait until 30 to stop, I could only resist the urges for so long. Inevitably, I gave in and smoked the cigarettes because my thoughts were not aligned with my objective, the urges became stronger, and I could no longer resist them.
Allowing an Urge
Let’s stay with the smoking cessation example because now I will explain the difference between not responding to an urge based on willpower and how different the outcome is when we allow an urge and get curious about it. The only way we can allow an urge and not respond to it is if we cultivate self-awareness and change the way we are thinking. If we want to create a change in our behavior, it always has to begin with a change in ourselves first. OR, as in this example, enough time goes by that my previous thought that caused me to rely on resistance instead of allowance, now worked in my favor. My original thought was if I do not stop smoking by 30, I will become a lifelong smoker. Well low and behold, when I was 29 and on the verge of turning 30, that thought served me quite well. I decided to make stopping smoking for my New Year’s resolution because I had success in the past with resolutions and thought if I did not stop then, I never would (of course we know that is BS but that is what my brain was offering me). The underlying thoughts then were I know how to achieve New Year’s resolutions when I make them and it is time to stop because I am almost 30. Those thoughts triggered a feeling of determination and led to me to never take a hit off a cigarette again. Yes I had urges but they were not nearly as strong as when I was resisting them. The result is I have not smoked for decades and do not miss it at all because my thoughts were aligned with my objective. There is absolutely no cognitive dissonance around the habit anymore and the desire has been completely eliminated.
Okay, so let’s dig a little deeper about how to handle an urge when we are allowing it to be there. The biggest difference is we get curious about it. When we are resisting an urge, we desperately wish it was not there and wish it would go away. We grit our teeth and wait for the desire to drink or do whatever habit until it dissipates. When we allow an urge, we take note of it, we distance ourselves from it, we describe how it feels in our body, we don’t judge it, or make it a problem. We don’t get caught up in the drama of it being there, so we are able to breathe into it and process it much sooner than if we were to resist it. By getting curious and allowing our urges, we can stop judging ourselves and start to think differently about the desires we have for our habit. Negative emotions tend to shut us down, while positive ones like curiosity inspire us to take action and keep moving toward our goal of changing our relationship with the habit.
Now I will share examples of how I reacted, resisted and allowed urges all during the same dinner out at a restaurant last Saturday evening. I want to remind you here that the goal is not to be perfect. It is about being able to be honest with ourselves so that we can learn how our brain is wired for our habit and develop a greater understanding of ourselves. If we do that, we can plan ahead for obstacles and decide in advance how we will handle it when we are most tempted to give into the habit. Think of understanding your relationship with your habit as a case study and your brain is the subject.
In order to illustrate how these different responses might play out, I am going to talk about the urges I experienced last weekend in order of when I experienced them. It began with me resisting urges and it started before we even left the house to go to the restaurant. I was already anticipating that I would want a glass of wine and that it would feel bad when I could not have one. I did not realize at the time that I was resisting the urge, but I now know that was why it kept getting stronger. I found myself just wishing it would go away. It felt like a shield of armor encompassed my entire chest and abdomen. It felt like it was gray, fixed in place, and too rigid to even put a dent in. It made me feel constricted, less attentive to my husband, and consumed with the way I was feeling internally. I think the resistance and the underlying thought that I wish I could have a glass of wine is what was making me feel so bad.
When I say I gave into an urge at dinner, I wasn’t talking about the wine. I did, however, indulge in two pieces of bread that I am certain I would not have eaten had I ordered a glass of wine. I wanted a dopamine hit of something to make me feel good because the resistance was so oppressive. I don’t want to make a habit of doing that, but I am okay with the fact that I did that because I did not drink and that was the number one priority for me this week. It is quite common for people to replace one habit with another when trying to change a behavior.
It was right after we ordered our food and I got my pomegranate lemonade, that I started to realize I was resisting the urges instead of allowing them. When I realized that, I was able to breathe into the urges, distance myself from the feeling associated with them, and finally relax and start to enjoy my dinner. My thoughts changed from I wish I could have a glass of wine to there is no effing way I am having one! I also thought how proud I was of myself for even participating in the Alcohol Experiment. Whew. It was amazing how much better I felt when I chose different thoughts that served me and I acknowledged the resistance. Once I did that, I was able to allow the urges to be there and not make them a problem. I was able to process the urge and release it relatively soon and continue to choose thoughts that were aligned with the result I truly desired.
So to recap, we have three choices when we feel an urge to participate in a habit we are trying to change or stop. We can react to the urge, but that will just make the desire for the habit become more intense. When we resist the urge, we rely on willpower but that makes the urge stronger and is not sustainable long term. Our third option is we can allow the urge to be there, get curious about it, and develop a greater understanding of how our brain reacts when we want to participate in a habitual behavior. When we choose curiosity over judgment and other negative emotions, we are more likely to be successful in changing our relationship with the habit and developing a deeper understanding of ourselves. Join me in the Brain BS™ Podcast to discuss this further.
If you have heard enough and been trying to change a relationship with a habit and exhausted from fighting urges for way longer than you care to admit, maybe it is time for you to consider getting some help. The beautiful thing about my approach is that there is nothing threatening about it and you are not even required to totally stop the behavior. Listen, I totally get you here. I know what it was like to be totally immersed in a drinking habit and completely unaware there was even a downside to it. I used to be a heavy smoker and an over eater too and understand how powerful urges can be and how challenging it can be to change. Here is the thing though, it really is not that hard when you learn to manage your mind. Yes, there will be discomfort but nothing you cannot handle when you align you mind with your objectives. I can show you how to do that. Go to www.thebrainbs.com and sign up for a free 60-minute consult and start creating a new relationship with your old habit that is no longer serving you.