Many people’s understanding of how cravings work is pretty limited. The popular narrative is that cravings are a nuisance and that they’re mostly random feelings that we get, albeit very hard to ignore.
Sometimes cravings will get linked to stress, but that’s as far as the investigation goes. There’s no investigation into what specific stress is linked to them. There’s no further investigation into cravings at all, really.
The concept of cravings is quite complex, though, and there’s a lot value in coming to understand how they work. People who do this work are empowered to change their behavior—to end destructive habits and replace them with healthy ones.
In our Decode Your Cravings program, we talk about a patterned craving response called “Pattern Paralysis.” It’s based on the influence of rituals in human culture, which in turn is based on our psychological programming.
As you read about it, keep in mind that it’s only one of the 45+ BioPsychoSocial manipulators we’ve identified as driving forces behind why most people repeatedly fail to align their behavior with their good intentions.
The Power of Ritual
It’s no secret that humans love rituals and traditions. You can look at cultures all over the world and find them engaging in these macro-rituals of holidays and celebrations.
People even engage in micro-rituals, like a baseball athlete adjusting his pants, glove, helmet, stance, etc. in the same exact order every single time he gets up to bat.
Why do we do this? For the most part, it’s because humans love predictability. Because predictability is usually interpreted as stability (even if the environment is unstable, oddly enough). Stability is interpreted as safety. And humans have a biological core need for safety.
We love rituals so much that science suggests human behavior can be predicted 93% of the time.
Rituals are also helpful for energy conservation in the brain. Patterned behavior is programmed to increase efficiency. When you’re operating within the guardrails of a pattern, your brain doesn’t have to do as much work. In this regard, patterning is often a form of unconsciousness—of not being present.
Rituals, Emotional Eating, and Cravings
Cravings are complex because human beings are complex. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, that craving is a pattern. Let’s break it.” Why is it a pattern? What’s that specific pattern for?
If the pattern and the cravings that go along with them are deeply linked to core human needs, it won’t be possible to just decide to break it. Your brain is way more powerful than that. To think it won’t resist, and resist strongly, is an oversight.
Let’s say that your craving pattern is to watch television at night and snack while you watch. You usually choose the same type of snack every night. For one person it might be a sugary treat. For another it might be something crunchy and salty.
If you’re trying to eat more healthily and reach some specific health and fitness goals, this pattern isn’t serving you well. It’s a destructive ritual.
To your brain though, and maybe to a few parts of your personality, this is a great ritual. If you investigated it further, you might find a few reasons why your brain loves it:
- It’s decompressing. The chaos of the world seems to come to a halt for this ritual period and everything seems to be in such control.
- It’s medicating. The entertainment you’re watching is medication and so is the snack you’re eating. It’s psychological medication. It’s physiological medication. It solves problems and suppresses pain, albeit temporarily.
- It’s symbolically meeting other core needs. For many, this ritual could be an antidote of sorts to loneliness or lack of connection. Its stability is surely meeting a need for safety (again, symbolically, because it also might be damaging your long-term prospects for survival).
- It’s nostalgic. Maybe this pattern was created in childhood where your family gathered around the TV every night and snacked together. It was very tribal. Engaging in this ritual subconsciously puts you back in those comfortable circumstances.
- It’s easy. Let’s face it, engaging in the ritual is easier than not engaging in the ritual. And after a long day at work and caring for kids, easy is pretty appealing. So the ritual gets repeated.
I could keep going. There are more reasons why your brain loves the ritual. But that’s not the point. The point is to help you understand why you can’t just “decide to break the pattern.” If those are the reasons you’re engaging in the pattern, your brain is going to fiercely defend it.
If you truly have a case of “Pattern Paralysis” in this manner, you know I’m right. The main symptom of this is the inner conflict of wanting to break the pattern while simultaneously not wanting to break the pattern. You talk yourself out of breaking it before you even get started.
Willpower & Discipline Rarely Break Patterns
The two most popular tools for behavior change are willpower and discipline. This idea that we can just override our extremely complex and powerful brain (and all the feel-good chemicals that come from these beahviors) through sheer will is an interesting narrative.
It’s mostly a myth, of course. Willpower and discipline have short-term value, but very little long-term value. If you were to use willpower and discipline to break a pattern, you’d probably be successful for a while. For some people that might be as little as 48 hours. For others it might be 48 days or even 48 weeks.
Eventually, though, the pattern returns. Or other destructive behaviors replace it. Why? Because willpower and discipline don’t address the root issues.
They don’t address your need for decompression, stability, and safety. They don’t address the pain that you’re trying to medicate. They don’t meet the core needs the pattern was symbolically meeting. They don’t override the love for nostalgia. The only challenge you’ve really overcome is, “the pattern is easier.”
All of those other things that haven’t been addressed are still gnawing at you from the inside. And they will continue to gnaw until you give in and continue the pattern or adopt new behaviors that meet those needs.
Even if you don’t feel it gnawing at you, it doesn’t mean you’ve won. Sometimes these things go dormant. I can assure you that if you haven’t done the work, you haven’t won. Not for the rest of your life.
Often, people will feel totally in control, maybe even for a year or more. And then life will happen. A stressor will swoop in and everything will unravel. And the brain will gladly take that opportunity to restore all old patterns and habits and behaviors.
Then what? More willpower and discipline? Why not just solve these challenges at their core and be free from these patterns (and food cravings in general) for the rest of your life without the need for willpower or discipline?
What seems to make more sense to you? Putting a little band-aid on a gaping wound or doing some surgery to sew it up so it can heal for good?
These patterns can be broken. They can even be replaced with new, healthy, and productive patterns. Your cravings can be addressed in a way that puts you back in control for the rest of your life and ends the inconsistency and frustration you’ve been experiencing for years.
But willpower and discipline will never do this for you. Diets, rules, and restriction will never do this for you. A personal trainer and “being accountable to someone” will never do this for you. All of those things are like bringing a knife to a gun fight.
If you truly want to be successful for the rest of your life, it’s time to address the challenges you face at a deeper level. It’s the only real hope you have.
Every single person has different reasons for making the choices they make—different stressors, different patterns, different manipulators, different needs, and different life circumstances. That’s why we created Decode Your Cravings—to help men and women address their specific cravings, do the work that truly creates change, and get back in control, for life.
Founder of Rebooted Body and host of The Rebooted Body Podcast. Kevin helps men and women finally get a body and life they love with his unique blend of real food, functional movement, and psychology. To work with him personally, choose a program.