Using Technology to Increase Mindfulness and Curb Desire

There was a recent study published in Healthy Psychology where researchers at UCLA used text messaging as a way to monitor real-time health behaviors such as smoking cigarettes. Participants were sent 8 text messages a day and were expected to report back on their ongoing cravings, mood, and cigarette use.

I found this application of technology really exciting because it is very similar to what I’ve been working on for my mindfulness coaching, which entails using Twitter or text messages to help monitor thoughts, emotions, and actions in the present moment. This technique can be great for overcoming bad habits because it helps us:

  • Identify times of the day when we experience the strongest cravings.
  • Identify the environments we are in where we experience the strongest cravings.
  • Identify and acknowledge the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that contribute to our cravings.

A random tweet or text message can initiate a short buffer that helps breakdown and weaken impulsive decision-making. It reminds us throughout the day to reflect on our desires, instead of acting on them automatically and without conscious thought. Mindfulness gives us the power to put a halt to habits that have become second-nature, to become more patient with ourselves, and therefore exercise a greater sense of will-power and choice.

Urge surfing

In mindfulness-based psychotherapy there’s a technique called “urge surfing.” The assumption behind the technique is that an urge never lasts forever. Usually, no more than 30 minutes. Clients can therefore “ride out” these urges simply by being more aware of their transient nature.

While reflecting on an urge to smoke a cigarette or eat something unhealthy, we should make note of everything that makes up the craving experience, and how it affects our bodies and minds. For example, we can identify the physical sensations that accompany the urge, where these sensations are located in our bodies, as well as other physical qualities. We can also make note of the thoughts and mental images that may amplify our cravings in that moment. It is common (if not universal) that the experience will change over time as we watch it.

Sometimes while watching a feeling it can become more and more intense. This is often compared to the tides of an ocean crashing further and further onto the beach, as the craving builds and builds. However, the important thing to remember while “urge surfing” is that eventually the tide will fluctuate and go back to a lower sea level. Then the urge becomes weaker and inevitably dissipates.

Urges do go away, but they may be very strong for a short while, especially when you are first starting out. Knowing that they will weaken will help you to continue to surf the impulses without giving in.

If you want, you can accommodate your urge surfing with a helpful mantra such as “this too shall pass.”

Using technology

As mentioned before, technology can serve as a helpful interruption throughout our day to facilitate more conscious living. If we catch ourselves about to act on a desire, we can apply a reflective technique such as “urge surfing” until the urge has passed. By periodically reporting (and self-monitoring) our cravings, I believe we can cultivate a greater awareness of some of the more “automatic” habits we act out throughout our day, actions we often fail to reconsider or give a second thought.

However, if something like urge surfing is inadequate (maybe we simply can’t find the will-power), we can still use mindfulness to become more aware of the “external triggers” that influence our behavior. If we notice we are only compelled to engage in a bad habit around certain people or in certain environments, we can use that new found information to adjust the types of people we hang out with or the environments we engage in. This can sometimes be necessary to correct bad habits that are heavily rooted in our surroundings.

Either way, mindfulness and technology can play an important role in becoming more attentive to these needs, and therefore it should be strongly considered by anyone who is trying to fix detrimental behaviors. The text messaging technique can be a worthy supplement to psychiatric drugs or professional therapy, including Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which already integrates mindfulness into some of its practice.

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