Mindfulness is a term one hears frequently these days. It is associated with an almost unbelievably wide array of self-improvement and relaxation strategies, as one look in the ‘self-help’ section of a bookstore, or a web search can confirm. While I can’t vouch for the many claimed good effects of mindfulness, it does seem to help to reduce both the intensity and frequency of tobacco cravings. So what is it, and why would it work?
Mindfulness is the process of directing your awareness to the present moment with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance. The mind has a tendency to almost constantly jump around from sensations, to past experiences, to future plans, to emotions, to hurts or joys or thoughts, or imaginings. Mindfulness is taking a step back to observe the constant bouncing of one’s attention, rather than being unconsciously bounced from thought to thought.
Craving can be understood as a strong desire, usually to consume a specific food or drug that intrudes into awareness. Cravings develop when rewards from food or a drug are associated to cues, either internal or external. The craving serves to induce an action/behavior to obtain the associated reward.
There are a number of theories as to why and how cravings are affected by mindfulness. One that I favor is that being mindful of the present moment inhibits the automatic associations between the cue and the action by occupying working memory. We really can’t focus upon more than one thing at a time. The present moment awareness stops the mind’s conditioned leap from cue to action. By stepping back from the jump from cue to action, one can then choose to attend to other things, like a deep breath, or a happy thought. This new association begins to diminish the strength of the past reinforced habit.
I would be interested to hear from others about their use of mindfulness to help with craving?