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Physician Health and Well-Being: Managing Cravings with Mindfulness

Physician Health and Well-Being: Managing Cravings with Mindfulness
By John A. Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP, ABIHM
Founding co-chair LMS Physician Wellness Program

       By our very nature, human beings are craving creatures. Cravings can occur in response to natural physiologic needs such as hunger, thirst and social contact. Cravings can also become unhealthy habits in response to emotional cues such as anxiety, depression, anger, grief or loneliness. Mindfulness can help us take control of our wants, needs, urges and cravings and stop being controlled by them.

Our choices can become more intentional. Our lives can become healthier and happier – and longer.

Lifestyle and Health– Our health is largely dependent on the lifestyle choices we make. We can choose to sit and look at a screen or stand and move. We can consume healthy, nutritious food and liquids in amounts that satisfy physiologic needs and maintain healthy weight- or we can choose unhealthy food and drink or overeat to satisfy psychological needs. Psychological cravings drive unhealthy lifestyle choices. We can learn to see this process and regain control over our health and happiness.

Some Thoughts Are Untrue– Our minds generate thousands of thoughts every day. While many thoughts are necessary, constructive and helpful, most are benign daydreams and others are useless or even harmful. We tend to believe our thoughts, even though they are often untrue. Our thoughts in response to hunger lead us to seek food, eat food and feel good. This can be healthy and life sustaining but the ‘feel good’ part can be a real problem if we also think overeating or consuming favorite comfort foods will soothe emotional discomfort. The same applies to behaviors glamorized in movies or advertising such as tobacco and alcohol use, which can snowball into recreational drug use, addiction and problems with health, relationships and employment. The repetition of these behaviors in response to stress leads to unhealthy coping strategies and potentially self-destructive habits.

Mindfulness Can Change Behavior- We have the ability to replace unhealthy habits and behaviors with healthy ones. Rather than self-blame, judgment and pure will power to change undesirable habits, mindfulness-based behavior change is founded on curiosity, patience and self-kindness. Knowing that certain behaviors are harmful to one’s health is usually not enough to change habits. Smokers, drinkers, couch potatoes and over-eaters know these behaviors are unhealthy. Mindfully examining harmful habits in great detail provides an internal embodied experience of the behavior that can lead to ‘aha’ moments. We begin noticing the struggle to climb stairs with the overweight and de-conditioning. We notice the second bowl of comfort food really isn’t that satisfying. We notice our alcohol use is steeling time from our loved ones. And we notice the positive self-image of making smart lifestyle choices. This experience of self-efficacy is a natural, organic change that comes from within and is far more effective than being told to change by a family member or health provider. Mindfulness-based behavior change goes beyond the intellectual knowledge to the experiential awareness that our lives are healthier and happier without our harmful habits. We become less interested in previously harmful habits and more interested in healthy behaviors that satisfy our intellect and our physical and emotional needs. We naturally let go of habits that no longer serve us.
A Practice of Simple Awareness of Craving– Begin small. Start slow. Notice the urge to engage in a familiar unhealthy habit or behavior. Be curious and experience the craving fully (body, mind and emotions) without acting on it just yet. What sensations do you feel in the body? Where are these sensations exactly? What thoughts, images, plans or memories are in your mind? How persistent or fleeting are these mental cognitions? What emotions are you aware of? Look deeply at your emotions as craving arises, as the unhealthy behavior plays out and after it is over. Write down those experiences as well as those arising while you write. Over time, you may notice your craving and unhealthy behaviors diminish as your sense of self-control and self-respect increase.
Be Curious and Kind– Mindfulness is based on curiosity, openness and acceptance. It is characterized by patience with yourself, trust of yourself and letting go of fixed views about yourself. It is also based on kindness and friendliness toward yourself and others.

       Anyone can learn to be more mindful- and it can change everything. Mindfulness can help you replace harmful cravings and habits with healthy ones- and even save your life.

The Craving Mind (From Cigarettes to Smart-Phones to Love- Why We Get Hooked and How We can Break Bad Habits)- Judson Brewer MD, Yale University Press (2017)

About the author-

Dr Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians (KAFP) and is a Longstanding Diplomat with the American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM). He is certified by the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine (ABIHM), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Physician Coaching Institute. He is on faculty with Saybrook College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences (Pasadena CA), Mindful Practice in Medicine (U of Rochester School of Medicine) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers mindfulness classes, coaching and integrative, mind-body consultations, focusing on burnout prevention and stress-related chronic disease. He can be reached through his website at