21 micro habits to make weight loss stick #17: Become non-reactive to urges

You don’t react to every urge or craving that comes to you in life, says Eating Psychology Coach Laura Lloyd.

Yet, you may have become accustomed to obeying every urge to eat by choosing to feed yourself, and so those cravings can feel like they control you – making you put sugar in your mouth despite yourself, or ‘making you’ eat at night. 

Opening up the chink of conscious choice in this process once again is key, if you want to lose weight and maintain a weight loss without dieting, or overcome binge eating and emotional eating.

Imagine: You walk into the kitchen…

… and your person has left a packet of chili lentil curls open on the counter. “Help yourself!”, they say.

Do you:

A) Go ahead and help yourself, hardly really thinking about it.

B) Have a few, feeling bad as you eat them because you promised yourself you wouldn’t.

C) Remember that you promised yourself you wouldn’t, and resist eating them, but have a huge dessert later because you held out.

D) Think about them, remember that you’d already chosen to eat other things today, and that you have bigger desires than these immediate ones, and after a few minutes the urge subsides.

If you recognise yourself as A, B, or C, then this post is for you – because option D is the one rarely explored.

We are so focused on saying ‘how do I stop cravings’ that we never actually experience them fully. 

Even if you have dieted before, you probably practised a lot of option C – resisting the urge to eat – but ultimately felt deprived and like you were missing out on fun as a result.

You may not have caved in that day, that moment… but a couple of weeks later, you fell off the wagon, hard.

But there’s another way. Not fighting off or eradicating or resisting cravings and urges, but letting the sensation arise and subside in your body – like an urge wave going through you. 

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A snippet from my story:

For years, I ate whenever I had the urge to eat.

I thought, as a former binge eater, that saying ‘no’ to myself would be a red rag to a bull, so I just never but the brakes on.

Urges felt very ‘strong’ to me, very ‘compelling’, I felt that they ‘made’ me eat on autopilot.

I didn’t realise that between the urge and the action of putting something into my mouth, there’s a window of opportunity – of agency – of choice.

I didn’t know how to allow an urge to eat to come and go, like water off a duck’s back.

Repeatedly, until the intensity of the urges diminished.

Not fighting it. Not feeling driven by it. Not hating it and thinking it was very hard. Or that stopping eating was ‘going to be so hard’.

But just experiencing it, like any other physical sensation of emotion – which is all an urge is: a feeling of urgent desire, triggered by a thought like “they look nice”, or “my favourite”.

Next time you get an urge or a craving, notice how it feels in your body.

For me, it just comes up as a kind of tension through my shoulders and neck.

The feeling is restless, like I want to move (which is what your brain is trying to make you do – feel motivated to get up from your desk and walk to the fridge!).

That’s all it is. Nothing so utterly all-consuming.

And, it passes.

Laura Lloyd

Eating Psychology Coach, The School of Food Psychology

I forget where I first encountered this concept.

It’s there in mindfulness, it’s there in the writing of Kathryn Hansen and Dr Amy Johnson – even then, I didn’t quite get it until I started working with a simple plan for my eating, which I made every 24 hours.

Having a plan was a game-changer, because it was so obvious which urges were in-the-moment ones, because they were my brain’s attempts to get me to eat things that weren’t already on my plan.

We dismiss urges, without any drama, all day long.

  • Urges to do something violent when we’re seriously cheesed off.
  • Urges to break the speed limit.
  • Urges to yell at the kids (not always resisted, unfortunately).
  • Urges to scratch your crotch in public.
  • Urges to say rude things to your boss.=

Why do you not react to those urges?

Because you keep your long-term goal in mind – and the long-term consequences of giving in to your urge too.

You want to stay out of prison, retain a driver’s license, be a loving parent, not humiliate yourself, and keep your job.

So, you can dismiss urges to eat when they come up. You already have the capacity, the skill, the muscle.

You only think you don’t, because you’re used to feeding them.

The thing is, when you feed an urge, it does go away, but it always always comes back.

The thing we never experience, since we ALWAYS feed the urge, is that they go away anyway.

You’re so used to scratching the itch to try to make it go away, that you never don’t scratch it, and realise it subsides without you doing anything at all. 

Eating brings relief from urges, but also not-eating brings relief from urges.

It’s like feeding a stray cat.

I think it was Amy Johnson who talks about it as a stray cat – I may be wrong. In any case, I’m pretty sure I didn’t invent this analogy, but I love it.

The more you feed the stray cat, the more it comes around.

But say if, for a few times, you don’t feed it.

Yes, it’ll mew and yowl and scrape at your door. After a while, it’ll go away and hunt for a mouse.

Maybe it’ll come back again the next day, and then next, but if you keep not feeding it, you’ll hardly ever see it in your garden any more.

There are various strategies for talking to yourself about urges in ways that make them eminently easier to not react to.

And for picking apart the thinking that excites them in us in the first place – and that’s what we do a lot of in coaching.

This applies equally to your urges to binge.

This is a bigger topic, and you might not believe it if I write it here, but – setting aside all the past reasons you originally began the behaviour – binge eating in your present life is now a habitual behaviour, where the urge to binge comes upon you strongly and you repeatedly feed it.

Becoming non-reactive to urges is a game changer. 

You can already do it. You just don’t know you can.

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