The Science Behind a Craving - And How To Resist It

There it is. You feel a rush of excitement as you see that thing that you promised you would give up. It may be a slice of cheesecake, a glass of wine, or a cigarette, but whatever it is, it feels like your whole body is saying YES!!!

Then a rush of anxiety hits just as hard, and the internal debate begins.

“Okay, I’ve been good for the last week, I can give myself a treat, right?”

“No, no, no, I promised myself I wouldn’t indulge.”

“Well, what if I just indulge this ONE time? I’ll make up for it tomorrow!”

So you indulge. If you’re lucky, this really was an isolated incident.  But for the majority of us, this was the first step to slipping right back into our old habits

Then we get down on ourselves and wonder if we’ll ever be able to beat it. 

There is, of course, a psychological element to resisting these cravings. Even though it may be the most difficult thing to resist in the world, your brain has to tell your muscles to pour that glass of wine, light that cigarette or pick up that fork.

But what’s happening within our body that makes that “rush of excitement” happen?


When you saw the thing that triggered your craving, your amygdala, an area of the brain that acts as your alarm system, went off and triggered the “fight-or-flight” response [1]. It released stress hormones in your body that would make sure that you had the power to deal with the threat at hand. Evolutionarily, this response was meant to give us the energy and concentration to avoid predators. In modern day society, however, we have different threats to deal with. 

The main affect that this response has is an increased level of focus on the threat. Have you ever noticed that when this type of craving is triggered, our usually wandering thoughts all of the sudden become laser focused on whether or not we should indulge? That is due entirely to the fight-or-flight response getting rid of all unnecessary thoughts so we can focus on the threat. [1]


Unfortunately, this fight-or-flight response also happens to shut down your prefrontal cortex – otherwise known as your impulse control center [2]. Whoops. It has a very good reason for doing so. It believes that you’re face-to-face with a lion on the African Savannah and doesn’t want you to overthink your escape. However, with our modern day threats being much different, our impulse control could come in handy right about now.

So here you are facing down your craving and the demise of your goals. You have a rush of stress hormones helping you focus on the craving, while also rendering your impulse control center obsolete. So what do you do now?!


Remember how seeing your craving instantly triggered the fight-or-flight response, which in turn lowered your impulse control? Well, taking a moment to pause and think about what is happening in your body will reverse this process. Simply by thinking about what is happening in your body, your pre-frontal cortex (impulse control) is called back into action. It also takes your mind off of the external craving and onto yourself. [3]

When your impulse control gets its power back, and the focus is all of the sudden back on yourself, you start to remember those long-term goals that you made. You become aware of the correct decision for the long-term, and you gain the power to walk away.


Next time you deal with a threat, take a moment. Understand what’s happening in your body and come up with a plan to prevent the threat from bringing an end to your goals. By simply going through that process, you may just find the power to walk away!


  1. Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers an Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-related Diseases, and Coping. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1998.
  2. Arnsten, Amy F. T. "Stress Signalling Pathways That Impair Prefrontal Cortex Structure and Function." Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10.6 (2009): 410-22.
  3. Pause and plan: Self-regulation and the heart. Segerstrom, Suzanne C.; Hardy, Jaime K.; Evans, Daniel R.; Winters, Natalie F. Wright, Rex A. (Ed); Gendolla, Guido H. E. (Ed), (2012). How motivation affects cardiovascular response: Mechanisms and applications. , (pp. 181-198). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, xiv, 424