“The Secret” of gaining Self-Control


You would think that 50 years after the first U. S. Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of tobacco was published we’d be beyond the problem of smoking.

Solving these problems is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle.

There is one piece of this puzzle that may hold the key:Our choices about what we do with our cravings to engage in addictive behaviors like smoking or overeating.

Willingness means allowing your cravings to come and to go,while not acting on them by smoking or eating unhealthy.

I’m not talking about willpower, and I’m not talking about “Power through your cravings.”Instead, I’m talking about a different notion of cravings that looks like this:dropping the struggle with your cravings.

He said, “Jonathan,this book will change your life forever!”And I said “Oh, OK… Yeah… yeah, I’ll check it out.”So I went through it and thought, “Nah, this is a bunch of psycho-babble,”and tossed it aside.

It’s a broad approach to behavior change that’s being used to help people with anxiety disorders, with addiction seven some innovative companies are now using it to help improve their employees’ performance and reduce their stress.

In my research world,a common way you help people quit smoking and lose weight is you teach them to avoid their cravings.

Avoid thinking about smoking, distract yourself from food cravings.

It goes like this:(Singing) When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head,don’t feel those feelings,hold them in instead. Turn it off like a light switch just go click.

We do it all the time when you’re feeling certain feelings that just don’t seem right.

Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light and turn them off.

Now, turn it off! Turn it off!You want those cookies even more now, right?You see the futility of trying to turn it off.

Here is how:My research lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, here in Seattle,is conducting randomized clinical trials to see if showing people how to be willing to have their cravings is effective for quitting smoking.

We are conducting trials and face-to-face interventions and a telephone quit smoking hotline and a website called webquit.

When you pool together the results from six clinical trials,all six that have been published to date,including trials conducted by our colleagues,what we see is that for the people who were assigned to the avoidance approach – avoiding your cravings -some of them quit smoking,and it varied depending on the study.

For the people who were randomly assigned to the willingness condition,twice as many quit smoking.

To help you see willingness in action,I’m going to weave together experiences I’ve had in counseling people for quitting smoking.

As is typical of people who come in to want help for quitting smoking,Jane was a 45-year-old person who started smoking when she was a teenager.

She tried to quit smoking several times and was not successful.

The first thing that I showed Jane was to be willing,that is to be aware, of her cravings in her body.

What I did was I asked her to journal that, and just to track the intensity over time,and to see if she’d smoke afterwards.

So in the middle of explaining this, she stops me and says,”What are you talking about? I don’t have cravings, I just smoke!”So I said, “Well, why don’t you try it, and we’ll see what happens,and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.”So she came back a week later and she said,”You know, I’ve been tracking my cravings, I’ve been tracking them all the time. And now I can’t stop thinking about smoking! (Laughter) What am I supposed to do?”Well, before I tell you my answer, let”s look behind the scenes.

Now, what was probably going on here was that Jane was having cravings all along,and like a lot of us, she was living on autopilot.

You wake up in the morning, you smoke a cigarette,you have a cup of coffee, you smoke a cigarette,you get in the car, you smoke a cigarette.

We’re often just not aware of what we think, what we feel before we act.

My answer to Jane was to be willing,and one of the ways I showed her to do that was with an exercise called “I am having the thought”.

One of Jane’s thoughts before she had a cigarette was,”I’m feeling a lot of stress right now, I really need a cigarette.”So I asked her to add the phrase”I’m having the thought” like this.

“I’m having the thought that I’m feeling a lot of stress right now I really need a cigarette.”Then I asked her to add the phrase “I’m noticing I’m having the thought,”so “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m feeling a lot of stress right now,I really need a cigarette.”Now, we can all do an exercise like this when we have any kind of negative thought.

Like for my thought that “I’m boring all of you with my talk”(Laughter)and I’m having the thought that I’m boring all of you with my talk.

What this exercise did is it gave me a little bit of space between me and my thoughts.

The fact is we don’t act on every thought we have,because if we did, we’d all be in a whole lot of trouble.

That was the judgment that she felt from people when she would be outside smoking a cigarette.

The criticism from her husband for being a smoker,and the self-loathing that she developed about smoking.

I said to Jane,”What would it be like if we tried to honor this feeling of shame as part of the human experience?If you had a close friend who is feeling shame about smoking,”I said to Jane,”What would you offer this friend as words of caring and kindness,and could you then offer those words to yourself, Jane?”And she looked up,and she had this look of this temporary respite from the shame,which made it just a little bit easier next time not to act on the craving.

Because otherwise,we get into a tug-of-war with a monster, a craving monster.

The secret to self-control is to give up control. Because otherwise,we get into a tug-of-war with a monster, a craving monster.

The craving monster says,”Come on, smoke a cigarette. Come on, have that cookie. Come on!”And you’re on the other side saying,”No craving monster, I’m going to distract myself from you,I’m going to ignore you, no, no, no, no.”And the craving monster says, “No, no, come on, you know you want it!”And you’re just back here and you’re going back and forth and back and forth and pretty soon the craving monster overpowers you- you have that cookie, you have that cigarette,until the craving monster comes back.

What you discover is that if you just allow the monster to be,to occupy a space in your body,you discover in a few minutes that the craving monster is not as threatening as he appears.

When you see them, try to be aware of the cravings in your body, try to be willing to have those cravings.  See if they pass on their own.

Whatever choice you make, try to bring a spirit of caring and kindness to yourself,for that is the mountain that we are all climbing.


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