Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mentally Practice Your Way Out of Craving

When I worked at a preschool for autistic children, we went through a peculiar routine every time one of them failed to follow directions. 

"Kevin, it's time to clean up." Little Kevin was oblivious. "Kevin, please put your toy away." He kept playing with the truck. "Kevin, you need to put your toy away." No response. 

Now it was my job to walk over and guide little Kevin's body through the motions of cleaning up. "Kevin, it's time to clean up." Placing my hand over his, I'd guide his hand down and help him pick up the toy truck with it. I would them walk him over to the toy bin and help him drop the truck in. There you go Kevin. That's the way we clean up. 

With that, we would have been done--if I'd had my way. 

But I wasn't in charge. I was following a treatment program. So instead of getting on with the reading activity that was next on the schedule, I'd pick up the little truck, walk Kevin back over to where he'd been playing, and drop the truck on the ground again, where we repeated the whole thing. 

"Kevin, it's time to clean up." The guiding of his hand, the picking up of the toy, the walking to the bin, and the dropping of the toy in the right place. 

Then we did it again. And again. For a total of ten reps. If you're thinking, "Wow, that would get old," you're right. It got really old. 

But drudgery was not the goal. I wasn't punishing Kevin into submission. Push the little Sisyphus's rock down the hill again and make him do it all over again. 

The developer of our program, Dr. Ivar Lovaas, knew that impaired nervous systems need more repetition in order to acquire skills and generate them independently when they're called for. It wasn't enough for Kevin's mentally distant mind to know what he needed to do next. His brain and body needed to be conditioned: This instruction goes with this behavior. See, this instruction goes with this behavior. And, as if that weren't enough, this instruction... You get the idea.

The principle of repetitive conditioning can be very helpful to those of us in the habit of repeatedly engaging in self-destructive behavior. 

In the throes of a craving, our nervous systems are impaired, in a way. We are mentally distant, not unlike little Kevin. It's as though the mind's in a thick forest, and can only see one path from here: succumbing to the urge. 

Every time you take that path in the heat of the moment and end up acting out, why not go back to that forest after things have cooled off and make a few practice runs, mentally? Imagine taking a better path, one you hope to take in the future. 

Olivia was excited to practice this exercise. She'd relapsed four days ago. I had her imagine sitting at the computer again and having the urge to view pornography. She dwelt on that for 30 seconds. Then she imagined standing up, walking out of her dorm room, and then outside for some fresh air. She repeated to herself these thoughts, which we'd come up with earlier: 

  • "Walking away feels good now and builds strength for later."
  • "I won't have to suffer the usual guilt and discouragement."
  • "It will feel good to have conquered this problem by the time I leave for summer break."

She spent time dwelling on each thought and associating it with the trigger situation: being alone in her dorm room with the urge to view pornography. 

Then, she thought about a second scenario where she found pornography tempting: watching TV late at night. After thirty seconds of focusing on it, she imagined standing up, turning off the TV, and walking into the bathroom to get ready for bed. 

  • "Walking away feels good now and builds strength for later."
  • "I won't have to suffer the usual guilt and discouragement."
  • "It will feel good to have conquered this problem by the time I leave for summer break."

Olivia practiced imagining being in a state of craving and then taking a different path this way for ten minutes a day over the next month. It built her capacity for standing up to cravings and making a different choice in the heat of the moment.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't heard this suggestion before; it sounds like a good idea. A very direct approach to facing down temptation. I appreciate ideas and hope to offer people I know who are struggling. Thanks for sharing.