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The exercises that help fight cravings and addiction

Reading time: 7 minutes

Certain behaviors, such as smoking a cigarette, drinking a glass of wine or eating sugary foods, can cause you to feel a pleasurable high that has you going back for more.

It’s perfectly normal to want and seek out what gives you pleasure – it’s part of the human condition. But when that desire for a particular substance or activity becomes compulsive and out of control – to the point where it could do or is doing you harm – it crosses over into addiction territory.

It’s possible to be addicted to virtually anything – shopping, gambling, exercise, sex, watching TV and playing computer games, to name just a few. Not having what you crave can cause withdrawal symptoms, or a “come down,” so it’s easier to repeat the addictive behavior, and the cycle continues.

Unravelling addiction
Dr Gabor Maté writes in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts about the role of trauma as a key contributing fact for addiction, and in When the Body Says No about how stress drives compulsions and cravings.

Understanding the connections that stress and trauma have with addiction has been part of the growing awareness that mindful body-centered practices can help to unravel the harmful patterns that many people take up as coping strategies.

When the dissociation of past stress or trauma is bound up in substances or behaviors that keep us numbed, mindful movement – occupying your physical self fully in the here and now – can help you find new strategies for coping.

Whether you want to move away from full-blown addiction or simply be liberated from unhealthy habitual behaviors, fostering a more compassionate and present relationship with your body can go a long way toward helping.

Research into mindful movement practices such as yoga, qi gong and tai chi shows that they reduce the reactive stress responses that can send you in the direction of self-medication. Much of this effect may be due to their benefits in lowering stress hormones and boosting calming neurotransmitters such as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).1

It is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPCF) in the front of the brain that appears to integrate emotion-related information and translate this into habitual, quick-fix behaviors. Low VMPFC activity affects decision-making and can result in choices that satisfy instant want or reward with no long-term concern.

The “reward” feeling of the neurotransmitter dopamine is released not just after the intake of substances that give us a “hit” or a happy feeling, but also just from the anticipation of them. Mindful movement has been shown to wake up the VMPFC response and help people make more conscious choices.

According to one study, “Because yoga encourages mindfulness, positive self-talk, and self-acceptance, which may help increase self-confidence and sense of self, these aspects may engage the VMPFC by encouraging focus on body movements, the breath, and other foci.”2

Mindful movement
When you slow down exercise patterns to get the full mind-body experience, you can begin to cultivate a relationship with the deeper nature of your cravings. By learning to stay present and breathe fully with strong physical sensations, you are better able to acknowledge the intensity of your cravings without having to act on them.

Mindful movement can also help you develop the self-compassion needed to accept the difficulties in life that can have you reaching for food, alcohol or other substances to make you feel better, or push you toward behaviors that numb the pain.

With this type of movement, it’s not just about getting through the exercise and positions physically, but also about focusing on deep breathing and the sensations you feel as you perform the movements. This can help you to drop beneath the often overwhelming tide of a craving and turn your attention to your breath and movement instead.

Certain movements, especially those where you roll on the floor, can also have self-massaging effects. As limbs rub against each other and on the floor, serotonin levels increase and help regulate your experience of pain, both physical and emotional, reducing impulses to self-medicate.

This is where mindful movement helps you to drop reaction and attachment – two key facets of addictive cycles. If you can calm the nervous system and create space between a compulsion and the action of following through, or the attachment to the numbing effect that a certain behavior brings, you have more options available to you in terms of how to respond.

Focusing on the exhalation within the sensations of exercise can help you to release difficult or overwhelming feelings – especially when you accompany that with an audible sigh or move your face and jaw around to further release tension.
If you can tune into movement and your breathing, you can learn to control compulsive reactions, find the space for change and make it to the next moment without turning to quick fixes.

“Moving meditations” are particularly useful for focusing the mind when a craving or compulsion strikes. Feeling alternative, embodied sensations can help you to “disidentify” from a craving. Disidentification involves seeing the craving as something separate from you to create distance from it.

Indeed, in a study of people with chocolate cravings, disidentification was found to be more successful than distracting strategies at curbing the cravings.3 This is one of the important ways that mindfulness is becoming accepted as an effective intervention for cravings and addictions of any nature, including smoking, alcohol, drugs and sex.4

On the following pages you’ll find some simple movements and positions you can try to help curb cravings, unhealthy habits or addictions. Remember, though, that a key part of mindfulness in any form is to be fully in the here and now, without self-criticism or judgment. This means not labeling sensations as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant.

Exploring this within an introspective movement practice such as yoga, qi gong or tai chi can help to soothe hypervigilant inner voices, bringing more relaxed inner attention to thoughts and feelings that may trigger temporarily rewarding impulses.

Identifying these patterns can help you attend to the deeper needs that cravings and addictions are crying out to fill, often rooted in kindness, care and connection with others.

Belly circling
From any seated position with a lifted spine, begin to circle the whole torso, making circles with the crown of your head. Keep the shoulders, jaw and eyes relaxed, so that the movement comes from the belly. Inhale as you lift around and back, and exhale as you sweep around forward. Change direction when it feels right and repeat. Notice how the difference in direction feels in this moving meditation.

Lower back and hip release
Emotional tension is often held in the belly, lower back and hips. It can therefore be helpful to focus on these areas, which is best done when you are lying down, fully supported by the ground. Lying with legs bent, take one leg up at a time to explore any movement that simply feels good, tuning into your body’s needs, listening and responding.

Shoulder, upper back and neck release
From kneeling, take your hands out
wider than your shoulders, elbows above wrists with your palms drawn up so just your fingertips are on the ground – you can place your hands higher onto a chair seat if needed. From there, explore any motion into your shoulders, neck, spine, back, hips, face and jaw, getting into the nooks and crannies where tensioncan be held and translate into craving.

All-fours moving meditation
Starting on all fours, move around naturally, exploring whatever feels freeing in the hips, lower back and shoulders. Then exhale down toward child’s pose, kneeling with head tucked between extended arms, and inhale back up to all fours.

With the same breath rhythm, take the hips out to one side as you exhale down, and up the other side as you inhale. Follow these pelvic circles and then switch to the other side, resting in child’s pose afterward.

Then inhale up to lift the right arm forward, left leg back, drawing the lower ribs in to support the lower back. Exhale back down to child’s pose, then inhale up with the opposite arm and leg, moving side to side.

Side-body lengthening
From all fours, step one leg at a time out behind you and across the body to lengthen the whole side, including the neck as you look around to see the foot. Also feel the side movement into the spine as you move side to side.

Opening the front body
Coming onto your belly, lift up onto your elbows to feel length in the front body and opening across the chest; breathe there a while with chin dropped toward the throat. Then bend up one knee to bring the inside of that leg onto the ground comfortably for the hip, and take the opposite arm out to the side as you did before. Explore similar motions through the shoulder and neck, including turning to look over each shoulder, feeling your range of motion according to how your lower back feels. Do each side and then rest fully on your belly for a few minutes to feel your breath there.

Soothing the forehead
By supporting the head with a chair during a forward bend, you can let go of its weight, soften the eyes and jaw, and relax your mind. With arms folded onto the seat – legs crossed or extended, resting over a block or rolled blanket as needed – roll the head to massage the forehead. This can help to soothe the nervous system via the trigeminal nerve.

Soothing relief
Try this to end a practice or whenever you experience an intense craving. Lying down on the ground with your legs above your head can soothe your activated adrenal glands and slow down a racing heart rate. Use a chair, sofa, bed or anything nearby, and place your legs onto it while lying down. Support your head as needed, bring your hands onto your body and focus on your breath.

1 Med Hypotheses, 2012; 78: 571-9
2 Explore (NY), 2012; 8: 118-26
3 Appetite, 2014; 76: 101-12
4 Sci Adv, 2019; 5: eaax1569; Curr Opin Psychol, 2019; 28: 198-203

Article Topics: addiction
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