How Cravings Bite the Hand That Feeds Them

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A while back, I came across a quote by someone online who described herself as "mostly vegetarian." She continued, "Don’t get me wrong, though, if I’m craving a burger, I’ll eat that burger. Nothing tastes better than a craving satisfied!”

She's right: indulging a craving can be sheer bliss. Craving is like wanting, but on steroids. Wanting is: "I'd like that," while craving is more of an "I need that!" whole-body imperative.

Satisfying a want feels like opening a gift, whereas quenching a craving feels more like being rescued from a burning house. Both are good feelings, but one is an added bonus, while the other brings you back to baseline from a deficit.

It turns out, though, that quenching cravings is something of an illusion. Researchers have found a biological and chemical process in the brain responsible for assigning motivation to things, which is how your brain bumps something up from a "want it" to a "need it."

Each time you indulge a craving this mechanism becomes increasingly fired up, and predisposed to assign new things to the "need it" category. In other words, feeding a craving causes more cravings to arise, putting you at a greater deficit than when you started.

What's more, if you indulge your cravings enough, your brain's desire to convert "want its" to "need its" can become so supercharged that you start craving other, unrelated things. Things you may not even like!

Craving things you don't like?

That's because the mechanisms in your brain that allow you to crave things and like them are actually different. This may help to explain things like ambivalence—for instance, someone who craves and eats cake compulsively, yet also craves exercising. It's easy for indiscriminate craving for pleasure to become your primary motivator for action, rather than your long-term, intrinsic goals and preferences (which lead to happiness). 

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The disconnection of craving from liking, coupled with the snowball effect of indulgence begetting more cravings, may also help to explain some of the other mysteries of compulsive behavior. For instance, how people become addicted** to one thing that they may actually like but then go on to become addicted to other things that were never part of the original plan.

Also, why people sometimes keep engaging in an addictive behavior even when they don't actually like the effects or consequences of the behavior anymore. This is something you see commonly with people with drug and alcohol addictions.

It can happen with eating and other behaviors, too. There is the all-consuming drive to consume or act and then afterward, the letdown, guilt, or shame. Yet the craving comes back, as strong as ever.

Lord of the Onion Rings

There's something else you may have noticed about cravings: they demand completion. Half-responses to a craving don't suffice. Imagine craving some french fries or a piece of cake sitting in front of you. Taking a bite would provide the taste and mouth feel you’re longing for, but if you stopped there and spit the cake back out on the plate, you probably wouldn't feel relief from your craving. 

There's something about the swallowing, even though your throat doesn't have taste buds. There's something about the confirmation that this good, tasty thing is now inside—all mine!—that completes the act and quiets the craving for a time.

But that kind of grabby relationship to the object spoils the purity of just enjoying the good thing for what it is. It imparts a sort of craven, groveling, greedy flavor to the affair, doesn’t it?

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You're like a starving prisoner scrambling across the floor to reach the crust of bread before the other guy. Or like Gollum with his "Precious." It's not the best look. Have you consumed the object (or done the deed), or has it consumed you?

Contrast this with those folks who "swish and spit" at wine tastings—savoring the pleasure of the tasting process without the need to complete the consumption act. I saw a TV documentary about ice cream in which a professional taster at one of the companies was doing the same thing. (It's hard for me to get my mind around that one.)

Lowering the flame

I've used these examples for illustrative purposes. I'm not suggesting that you stop swallowing your food. Just that you consider that there's more than one way to relate to things you like, and that how you relate to them affects your well-being.

True enough, nothing else feels quite like satisfying a craving, and if experiencing that feeling is a priority of yours then, by all means, keep indulging them all. Because every time you do, you're guaranteeing that you'll have the opportunity again. The quenching sense of satisfaction you feel is a momentary sleight-of-hand distracting you from the fact that you're actually turning up the heat.

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A different option is to stop stoking the fire, by indulging your cravings less often. (Taking a mindful approach to your cravings when they arise, as I discuss a bit here, can help with this.) Yes, you'll pass up that quick illusory fix, but you'll gain a legitimate reward: you'll begin spending less time in frenzied "need it" mode and more in "want it" mode.

When something attractive catches your attention and your response is just to want it—to want to enjoy it—rather than craving it, you retain some equanimity, autonomy, and dignity that you lose otherwise. If you get/eat/drink the thing, you'll still enjoy the heck out of it, but without being all Gollum about it.

And, if you don't get your bit of satisfaction, then oh well. You'll survive and, what's more, you won't feel like something is missing, and be increasingly bothered by your lack of that thing until you obtain it.

You'll retain the right to set your priorities as you see fit, absolutely including those momentary pleasures that really do make life more livable, but not at the expense of the long-term ones, like peace of mind and equilibrium, that make it more thrive-able.
* Not surprisingly, craving is the subject of much research in the area of peoples' addictions to alcohol and a variety of drugs, but these processes seem to apply to other addictive behaviors.

** From a mental health standpoint, there is a distinction between compulsive and addictive behavior. A diagnosis of addiction (i.e. dependence) requires symptoms like increasing tolerance and withdrawal symptoms, which may not characterize every compulsive behavior. Here, I use the terms interchangeably because of their commonalities: the underlying drive to relieve anxiety of some kind, and the overpowering urge to comply with it whether or not you want to, or believe that you should.