11/21/2013 03:05 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

3 Steps to Outsmart Cravings, Part 1

When my daughter was a toddler, getting her to go down peacefully for a nap was basically impossible. There was always fussing and a struggle involved, and it used to make me feel a lot of tension.

After I got her down in her crib, it was typical of me to sit down in front of the TV and zone out while I drank wine and snacked on junky stuff like chips or crackers, because I wanted to relax and relieve that tension. I enjoyed this routine. It tasted good, it felt good and it was comforting. It was like an instant stress reliever.

But I started to gain a lot of weight and I began to feel unhealthy. I wasn't sleeping that well, my clothes didn't fit and I began to feel embarrassed by the weight gain.

When I would see friends or family, I would try to dress strategically to hide my stomach, but the looks and the gentle dieting advice I was given proved that I wasn't hiding what was going on under the layers of clothes.

I couldn't simply drop my bad eating habits because I didn't have any other ways to relieve stress that were so easy and instantaneous. So even though I desperately wanted to lose weight, I was having a ridiculously hard time giving up my TV-and-snacks routine.

Knowing Is Not Half the Battle
The weight gain was no joke. I was experiencing a lot of aches and pains, and I felt lousy most of the time, like I was never well-rested. Even though I was using food to relieve stress, I still felt pretty stressed out beneath it all.

It was like a Band-Aid where it made me feel better for a really short time each day, but for the most part, I wasn't happy with myself because a niggling part of me was seriously concerned for my health. I could clearly see that if I kept this up long term, I was absolutely going to shorten my life.

At the very least, the quality of my life was certainly suffering. Who wants to walk around feeling embarrassed by their body? Yeah, me neither.

But even after I made the decision to lose weight and get healthy, every day when the urge hit me to sit down on the couch with my snacks, I would have this mental argument with myself.

I'd think things like, "Okay! Today we're not going to give in. Oh, but you really want to. Well, just this one time. You can start the diet tomorrow." And then I'd give in.

I started to feel trapped in these habits I'd created for myself, and I didn't know how to break out of the pattern.

Day after day, I would start out telling myself I wouldn't flop down on that couch, but day in and day out, I gave in and I did the very thing I wanted to stop doing.

Until one day, I broke through the Craving Brain Fog.

Step One: Battle Craving Brain Fog
Sometimes, we check out mentally when we get a craving, and we seem to magically gravitate towards the object of our desire -- whatever it is, whether it's wine or Facebook or a new pair of shoes or ice cream -- and the next thing you know, we're proverbially licking the bottom of the ice cream tub. (I hope you aren't actually licking that sexy new pair of shoes, but you know, to each his own.)

When we have a habit, our brain navigates us towards an action without our realizing it. We might feel like we're not in control of our behavior.

We might get a craving for something, and then afterwards, we think, "Wait, why did I give in? Why did I do that?" It seems like we wake up with an empty bag of chips in our lap. We might feel blindsided, like we didn't consciously choose to engage in the habit.

So in step one, you're going to learn how to bring yourself out of the craving brain fog.

Here's the part where I drop some science:
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of craving. Dopamine is typically a good thing, but it's a brain chemical that can make you crave anything.

You can crave exercise, you can crave roasted broccoli with olive oil and sea salt. You can crave sticking to a good bedtime, or drinking lots of water. You can crave wonderful activities like writing or painting. So you can certainly use dopamine in service of forming good habits.

It's been shown that people who don't have much motivation could be lacking dopamine. Mercè Correa is a researcher at the Universitat Jaume I of Castellón who published and article called "The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine," in neuroscience journal Neuron. "Depressed people do not feel like doing anything and that's because of low dopamine levels," explains Correa.

So dopamine is good! We want dopamine. It's a vital neurotransmitter that motives us to action, and dopamine is critical to forming habits -- and that's the good, bad and the ugly of habits -- dopamine is involved.

The problem with dopamine is that if we develop a habit that's not good for us, dopamine doesn't discriminate and it will continue to drive us towards habits we don't want.

When our brains release dopamine, we get the feeling that if we give in to a craving, we're going to be rewarded with happiness! With survival! We think, "Oh, this is gonna be good!"

Dopamine is why we pig out and use Facebook too much:
If we pay attention when we give into a craving, dopamine has us always seeking the next bite, or the next drink, the next click on Facebook, or the next new pair of shoes.

Dopamine is why, when you have a bite of Ben & Jerry's melting in your mouth, instead of paying attention to the taste, you're rooting around in the pint with your spoon.

Or when you have a mouth full of chips, your hand is in the bag grabbing for more rather than paying attention to the crunching going on in your mouth.

Even though there's a bite in your mouth, dopamine has you thinking about the next bite.

It's a little bit tricky to pay attention to the pleasure of what we're experiencing because dopamine keeps us future oriented, and seeking "more!" rather than allowing us to feel satisfied with what we're tasting in the moment.

The three lies that dopamine tells you:
The first step to fighting cravings is to notice the effect that dopamine has on you. The next time you notice a craving, pay attention to the feelings -- both the physical sensations and the emotions. You might feel awake and excited!

You might be salivating and wanting that feeling of happiness that dopamine promises.

Notice the wanting. Especially if you feel conflicted about giving in, you might feel tension, and like the only way to relieve that tension is to give in!

The first lie that dopamine tells us is that if we give in, we're going to feel happy. We know that's not true. Giving in frequently leads us to feel guilty or to worry about our health.

The second lie dopamine tells us is that if we give in, the tension of the craving goes away. But really the tension sometimes doesn't go away until after the ice cream is gone and we've thrown away the empty pint and come to terms with the fact that the ice cream party is over.

Here's the third lie of dopamine: cravings are forever. When we're in the grips of one, we feel like it will be here forever -- or that we'll experience the craving until we indulge -- and that's not true.

Here's an important lesson to remember the next time you have a craving, and you're having a hard time waiting it out. Cravings come and go. They are temporary, and we're all capable of surfing a craving wave until it dies down.

What dopamine hides from you:
What dopamine covers up is that when we don't give in -- when we make a firm decision to ignore a craving and to get distracted by something else, we forget all about it! That craving goes away and then we don't feel that tension.

Dopamine tries to fool us into thinking the only way to relieve the tension of a craving is by indulging it, but the second you turn your attention away from the craving and get involved in a different activity, that tension goes away.

Struggling with a craving versus ignoring it:
It's when we argue with a craving and struggle with it that its energy builds. That's how we get ourselves into trouble. We weaken our willpower by focusing on cravings and fighting them and arguing with them.

When we're aware of the fact that ignoring cravings takes their energy away, then we're really onto something.

Here's a key part of getting rid of cravings and learning to ignore them -- before you can ignore them, you have to become keenly aware of how you're going to feel after you give in.

If you're reading this, then it means cravings aren't all sunshine and flowers for you. Otherwise, why bother outsmarting cravings? Cravings convince us in the moment that all we need is that naughty vice -- that food or that booze or that next hit on the credit card -- but at some point, we gotta pay the piper.

In order to effectively learn how to ignore cravings, you must mentally rehearse the full miserable sequence of what would happen if you give in: the craving, to what it's like when you give in -- meaning the drive towards the next bite and the next -- and then afterwards, when we finally feel released from the grip of the craving, we have to notice how we feel physically and emotionally. The answer is probably not too great.

Sure, if your pleasure is alcohol, you might feel pretty good right after you give in, but even in the short term -- you're going to have to experience that let down, and you're worse off for having given in.

If one of your avoidance habits is surfing Facebook, then notice dopamine is driving you towards the seeing the next status, or the next piece of interesting information or getting the next like. And then oftentimes after we've had enough Facebook, we think, "Well, that was time that could have been better spent!"

Don't just take my word for it -- learn this lesson for yourself:
An important question to keep examining is this: Do you feel happy after you give in to a craving? Did giving in live up to the hype that the craving promised?

Highly doubtful. However, you need to keep asking and experiencing the answer for yourself to really internalize and own the lesson that dopamine and cravings hold an empty promise in order to make it easier to ignore cravings.

When we're left holding the bag, so to speak, after we give in, we often feel guilty, physically sick, let down, out of control, or disappointed. Like we betrayed ourselves.

When we're finished giving in to the craving, we're left with that physical and emotional hangover of knowing that we've hurt our bodies or that we've wasted time or money, or whatever your downsides might be to giving in.

So here's my exercise for you. The next time you experience a craving, stop. Grab a notebook. Notice how the dopamine surge grips your attention.

Write down the details. Where are you, what time is it, what the craving is for. What does the craving tell you you're going to experience? What's the lie that dopamine promises you? It's usually some vague feeling like we're going to transcend our earthly worries if we give in.

Pay attention to how the craving feels in your body. What does "wanting" feel like in your mind, and in your body? Like a yearning? Like anxiety? Like tunnel vision towards a vice that you know isn't good for you?

Keep practicing. Every time you get a craving, perk up your senses and grab your notebook.

Katie Morton helps people overcome sabotaging and numbing behaviors in order to live big, blissful lives. Get her free eBook, 10 Steps to a Blissful Life, to learn how to break bad habits and start living big.

For more by Katie Morton, click here.