Where Urges Come From (Part 2)

We left off in Part 1 of Where Urges Comes From by diving a bit into the neurotransmitter called dopamine. Let’s put our scientist hat back on for just a bit before moving…

There Is & Only Ever Will Be ONE of You

Dopamine is one of the most crucial chemicals in our brain because it’s what helped humans evolve.  To survive each day in order to evolve.

When we were learning how to hunt, when we were learning how to make fire, when we were learning how to stay warm and sheltered from natural elements and predators, when we were learning how to procreate in order to ensure the continuation of our species, when we ate food to have energy to run away from predators or to chase prey… those were all activities connected to our survival and growth. And surviving, or staying alive, is what our brain is designed to make us do. 

Your brain knows that there is only one of you. 

The only one that there will ever be, with your unique thoughts and ideas… so it will do everything in its power to keep you alive.  So, it WILL look for what it perceives as rewarding and pleasurable because it didn’t kill you.  It will want to pursue more of it and it will even anticipate the getting of it with just a single thought, whether that thing is in front of you or not.  

Pleasure encourages repetition. 

What doesn’t kill you, literally, can make you stronger.  Unfortunately, in today’s day and age, since cheesecake didn’t kill us, our brain encourages us to get more of it. So, we get stronger at wanting it.

As soon as dopamine signals in your brain that whatever just happened was important, your brain begins looking for patterns that support that event and begins to store them in your subconscious.  

That’s why certain activities that you may do today after years of repetition, like brushing your teeth at night or eating a whole bag of Doritos, may feel so natural and easy.  Your brain wants to keep repeating what is easy.  It is purposefully looking for things that will be easy. Dopamine tells your brain what was easy and pleasurable, so your brain will look for things that will provide dopamine – and the more, the better!  

Back in the day, human beings used to anticipate finding berries with this kind of enthusiasm. Today, however, we have substances like drugs, alcohol, and ultra-processed foods, that elevate our dopamine so rapidly and so powerfully, that we instantly believe that whatever cookie we just ate or whatever new beer we just drank, is necessary for survival.  

These substances deliver powerful concentrations of dopamine to our brain that, rather quickly, our brain learns and remembers what just occurred and it stores it away in your memory as something that must be repeated.  Like, it MUST be repeated.  It’s that essential for survival – it becomes as essential as water or air.

So, when you eat something like a cupcake that is made of processed ingredients, or you drink alcohol, dopamine will inundate your brain instantly.  This teaches your brain to believe that, “Oh, this is good, this is really important, it’s going to keep us alive, we need this to stay alive.”  

This is where desire is born from but, more importantly, where intense desire comes from.  And when you understand this, then you can understand your urges a lot better because you now have knowledge on where they come from – your brain.

Urges Expect a Reward

So, what is an urge again?   It’s an emotion.  Specifically, the emotion of desire, and the intensity can vary.  

Your urge for your spouse may have a different intensity than an urge for French fries on a Saturday night after dancing.  The emotion of desire can be felt as a yearning, a drive, a craving, an itch for, or a wish, or just wanting something.  With an urge, the reason it’s there is because it also expects a reward.  So, an urge is the desire for something and the expectation of getting it.

Over time, your brain learned to expect a reward whenever it felt desire.  So, if you think about times when urges tend to come up for you, it’s most likely in everyday instances that you aren’t even consciously aware of.  Like when you’re driving home from work and you’re hungry and you want something quick and easy, or you’re at a football game and everyone is grilling and it smells like bratwursts and beer, or you’re watching TV at night and the kids are finally in bed…  Your brain has been paying attention to every instance where you felt desire and rewarded that desire with food.  And the more that desire was reinforced in the same instance or similar instances and was rewarded with food, your brain started committing it to memory, and the more it picked up on the expectation-reward pattern, the more it made everything effortless and subconscious… almost natural.  

Think about it, it feels weird if you don’t brush your teeth at night.  Why is that?  Your brain is actually used to getting a little bit of dopamine even from brushing your teeth because you are rewarding yourself with something that you decided was healthy and hygienic for your wellbeing. If you don’t give your brain the dopamine it’s expecting at night from brushing your teeth, it’s going to remind you by bringing on a little confusion. It’s urging you to do what it’s EXPECTING you to do in that instance.

It’s the same with food when you’re dieting.  If you’re used to eating a certain amount of food or a certain type of food in a particular instance, your brain learned that pattern.  If you try to change that pattern, your brain might freak out and urge you to go back to the way things were. So you see, it’s not about the food, really… much of it is about the pattern and the reinforcement.

Breaking Patterns

Now, it’s easy to break the patterns, or habits, when it comes to things we don’t need. 

For example, we may have an urge to check our phone every 5 minutes, but we don’t need our phone to survive.  We really don’t.  

Same goes with alcohol.  Or say, we give in to the urge to always be angry when we forget our headphones after we’ve parked at the gym, but we forget that we don’t need our headphones to workout, especially to survive.  The urge may be so strong thinking that you MUST have your headphones that you actually drive back home to get them.  

Urges are very persuasive and strong and urgent sometimes.  But not all-powerful. They do not have authority. 

When it comes to food, however, we do need food to survive.  The thing is, today, we are overeating.  Your brain is getting lots of dopamine from lots of food, more food than the body actually needs for fuel, which is keeping you from losing weight or keeping the weight off without struggling.  

Your brain, however, doesn’t know that more food, or extra food, isn’t necessary for survival.  All it knows is that the extra food is where it’s getting dopamine, and that’s very important to it, so it starts to believe that the extra food is important even when it’s not.

So, when you decide to go on a diet, especially after you’ve been in the habit of overeating in certain circumstances, certain occasions or certain times of the day or week, your brain is like, “Wait a second, hold up, what?  Why are we not doing what we always do?  It’s after work, this is when we always get our reward.  This is when it always happens, I remember this.  We need dopamine, so why aren’t we getting it?”

And when your brain is experiencing change it didn’t anticipate, or that it didn’t remember, it can feel uncomfortable.  

It’s in these moments when most people feel the urges when they’re on a diet, when they’re trying not to overeat, and they freak out a little bit or feel frenzied, almost lost and confused.  They think something is wrong.  They say their urges are intolerable, they’re too strong, it’s such an uncomfortable phase, they can’t resist, it’s impossible, they’re a weakness and they can’t help but give in.

What are you making the urge mean?

What a lot, a lot, a lot of people don’t realize is that thinking the urge means something is wrong is a decision.  It’s a choice they made, an interpretation of what the urge means.  

What makes the urges feel so terrible is thinking they’re terrible.  

Or, they could not be terrible. It comes down to a choice, to making a different decision for a different experience.  

Urges will never go away, and we don’t want them to.  If we don’t have the urge to eat, then we would die.  We need the dopamine and we definitely need our brain to pick up on patterns as efficiently and powerfully as it does on a constant, daily basis.  

We need our brain to know where to find food.  But extra food, the kind that’s keeping us stuck, isn’t food we need as badly as we need air or water.  Certain foods, especially ones that make us think are necessary for our survival, like cupcakes, are processed so much that the little amount of volume in the ingredients packs too much energy, and the more we eat it and believe we need to eat it for our survival, the harder it will be to lose weight and keep it off.  

Some of these foods were created by human beings, meaning they weren’t wholesome like other foods that either came from the Earth or had a mother.  These processed foods deliver such concentrated levels of dopamine that our brain has learned that they’re important when they’re not.  

The same goes for overeating healthy food.  I used to binge on plain, unflavored, unsalted almonds.  They came from the earth and were filled with nutrients, but because I always answered an urge with a handful of almonds—and any food that we eat lets our brain release dopamine—my brain learned that when an urge appeared, it meant a reward of almonds was probably soon coming.  

When people are starting a diet or are trying to stick to the diet they’re on, this is what I hear them say most often when it comes to urges.  

🔵 They hate feeling urges.  They just hate them.  They try to outsmart their urges, they even buy all the dietary supplements they can that will somehow prevent an urge from appearing in their body.  Urges are just too uncomfortable to sit with or endure that they wish they didn’t have them at all.

🔵 Another objection I hear about urges is that they always come backThey get stronger and never go away.  And when that happens, you’re on guard or on alert to try to preempt when the next one might appear.  It makes the whole weight loss process unpleasant, too hard, and frustrating because you’re always looking over your own shoulder.

🔵 Lastly, urges are debilitating because they exhaust you, they exhaust your willpower and any remaining reserves of strength you had.  Especially at the end of the day, and especially on the weekends.  

So, urges are intolerable, they always come back, and they’re exhausting.  

With this overpowering cocktail of reasons why urges are so terrible, it’s easy to understand why most people give in to their urges—why they use food to make the urges go away, to stop feeling the urges in their body.  They couldn’t tolerate it anymore and they just had to give in.  “I couldn’t help it, it’s just too hard,” they say.  I know, I was there once too, and for a long time.

But this is where you are going to start thinking about your urges in a different way and see that how we’ve been interpreting urges isn’t true. 

Check out Part 3 of Where Do Urges Come From to get the questions needed to begin thinking about these moments in ways that are helpful.