The secret to self control | Jonathan Bricker | TEDxRainier

Translator: Emanuele Rossi
Reviewer: TED Translators admin Let me tell you about my mom. My mom was 42 years old when I was born, and she started exercising
for the first time in her life. She started by running around the block, and then she started doing 5K races,
and then she started doing 10K races. And after that, she ran a marathon, and after that, my mom did a triathlon. By the time she was 57 years old, my mom was trekking uphill
to the base camp of Mt. Everest. (Laughter) And let me tell you about my dad. (Laughter) When I was a kid,
my dad used to take me to science classes.

He was also my calculus teacher
in high school. (Laughter) I wanted to crawl under the desk. (Laughter) I learned something important from my mom: The value of health. And I learned something
important from my dad: the value of science. And these two values have guided me
on my trek through life, and they've helped me appreciate
an epidemic that we are all facing. And it's not Ebola. Instead, it is the epidemic
of unhealthy living. A half billion people worldwide are obese. And you would think that 50 years after
the first U.S.

Surgeon General's report on the dangers of tobacco was published
we'd be beyond the problem of smoking. Today, a billion people
worldwide use tobacco. Tobacco and obesity
are two of the most preventable causes of premature death. Solving these problems is like
trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. We engage in unhealthy behaviors
because of our genetics, because of brain neurotransmitters, because of environmental influences
such as peers and the media. Each of those pieces of the puzzle are not things that you and I
can solve on our own. But there is one piece of this puzzle
that may hold the key: Our choices about what we do
with our cravings to engage in addictive behaviors
like smoking or overeating. Our choices. There is a new science of self-control that may hold the key to reversing
these epidemics. It's called willingness. Willingness means allowing
your cravings to come and to go, while not acting on them by smoking
or eating unhealthy. But actually, I'm not talking about
willpower, and I'm not talking about "power through your cravings." Instead, I'm talking about
a different notion of cravings that looks like this: dropping the struggle with your cravings.

Opening up to them,
letting them be there, and making peace with them. Now at this point
you may be very skeptical. (Laughter) I was when I first heard about it
years ago. A friend of mine came to me
with a book on willingness. He said, "Jonathan, this book will change your life forever!" And I said "Oh, OK…
Yeah… yeah, I'll check it out." So I went through it and thought,
"Nah, this is a bunch of psycho-babble," and tossed it aside.

Until some years later when my wife brought me to a workshop on willingness
at the University of Washington, and I was blown away. So then I read the book, and then I read a lot of books
on willingness, and I got trained in it, and what I learned was
that willingness is part of acceptance in the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
approach to behavior change. It's a broad approach to behavior change that's being used to help people
with anxiety disorders, with addictions even some innovative companies are now using it to help improve
their employees' performance and reduce their stress.

Now, to understand why I was blown away, you have to understand
the world I live in. In my research world, a common way you help people
quit smoking and lose weight is you teach them to avoid their cravings. Avoid thinking about smoking,
distract yourself from food cravings. There's a song from a Broadway show
that captures this perfectly. It goes like this: (Singing) When you start to get confused
because of thoughts in your head, don't feel those feelings, hold them in instead. Turn it off like a light switch
just go click. We do it all the time when you're feeling certain feelings
that just don't seem right.

Treat those pesky feelings
like a reading light and turn them off. (Laughter) (Applause) We all live in this world, where the song we keep hearing is
"turn off the bad feelings." Now, let's take a look at these cookies. (Laughter) They just came out of the oven
ooh, they are so good! Ah, they're so delicious. Mm-mm, just feel that craving
to eat those cookies. Ooh, they're lovely, they're so good. Now, turn it off! (Laughter) Turn it off! You want those cookies
even more now, right? You see the futility
of trying to turn it off. You can't turn it off! And maybe you don't have to. Maybe, you can leave the light on. Here is how: My research lab at the Fred Hutchinson
Cancer Research Center, here in Seattle, is conducting randomized clinical trials to see if showing people
how to be willing to have their cravings is effective for quitting smoking. We are conducting trials
and face-to-face interventions and a telephone quit smoking hotline
and a website called and in an app called SmartQuit.

These technologies have the potential
to reach millions of people with interventions
that could save their lives. That's pretty amazing. And let me tell you about the data. When you pool together the results
from six clinical trials, all six that have been published to date, including trials
conducted by our colleagues, what we see is that for the people
who were assigned to the avoidance approach –
avoiding your cravings —- some of them quit smoking, and it varied depending on the study. However, for the people who were randomly
assigned to the willingness condition, twice as many quit smoking.

Very, very encouraging. Now, of course, the data only tell us
one small part of the story. So, to help you see willingness in action, I'm going to weave together
experiences I've had in counseling people for quitting smoking. And I'll together refer to them
as one person that we'll just call Jane. So, as is typical of people who come in
to want help for quitting smoking, Jane was a 45-year-old person who started smoking
when she was a teenager.

pexels photo 5745210

She tried to quit smoking several times
and was not successful. So, she was very skeptical
that anything "new" was going to be helpful
to her for quitting, and yet she was really hopeful
that this time would be different. So, the first thing that I showed Jane
was to be willing, that is to be aware,
of her cravings in her body. So to notice where she felt cravings
in her body. And what I did was I asked her to journal that, and just to track
the intensity over time, and to see if she'd smoke afterwards.

So in the middle of explaining this,
she stops me and says, "What are you talking about?
I don't have cravings, I just smoke!" So I said, "Well, why don't you try it,
and we'll see what happens, and if it doesn't work,
we'll try something else." So she came back a week later
and she said, "You know, I've been tracking my cravings, I've been tracking them all the time. And now I can't stop
thinking about smoking! (Laughter) What am I supposed to do?" Well, before I tell you my answer,
let'’s look behind the scenes.

Now, what was probably going on here was that Jane
was having cravings all along, and like a lot of us,
she was living on autopilot. (Laughter) You wake up in the morning,
you smoke a cigarette, you have a cup of coffee,
you smoke a cigarette, you get in the car, you smoke a cigarette. We're often just not aware of
what we think, what we feel before we act. So, my answer to Jane was to be willing, and one of the ways
I showed her to do that was with an exercise called
"I am having the thought". So, one of Jane's thoughts
before she had a cigarette was, "I'm feeling a lot of stress right now,
I really need a cigarette." So I asked her to add the phrase "I'm having the thought" like this.

"I'm having the thought that I'm feeling a lot of stress right now
I really need a cigarette." Then I asked her to add the phrase
"I'm noticing I'm having the thought," so "I'm noticing
that I'm having the thought that I'm feeling
a lot of stress right now, I really need a cigarette." Now, we can all do an exercise like this
when we have any kind of negative thought. Like for my thought
that "I'm boring all of you with my talk" (Laughter) and I'm having the thought
that I'm boring all of you with my talk. So, what this exercise did
is it gave me a little bit of space between me and my thoughts. And it's in that space that I can choose not to run off
the stage in front of 1,500 people. (Laughter) And the fact is we don't act
on every thought we have, because if we did, we'd all be
in a whole lot of trouble.

(Laughter) So, this was helpful to Jane,
but there was something else that was really difficult for Jane. I felt a lot of compassion
for her about it. That was the judgment that she felt from people when she would be
outside smoking a cigarette. The criticism from her husband
for being a smoker, and the self-loathing
that she developed about smoking. And she dealt with this shame
by having a cigarette, which gave her relief temporarily
until the shame came back. So, I said to Jane, "What would it be like
if we tried to honor this feeling of shame as part of the human experience? If you had a close friend
who is feeling shame about smoking,” I said to Jane, “what would you offer this friend
as words of caring and kindness, and could you then offer those words
to yourself, Jane?" And she looked up, and she had this look of this temporary
respite from the shame, which made it just
a little bit easier next time not to act on the craving.

So, here is the secret to self-control: the secret to self-control
is to give up control. Because otherwise, we get into a tug-of-war with a monster,
a craving monster. And the craving monster says, "Come on, smoke a cigarette.
Come on, have that cookie. Come on!" And you're on the other side saying, "No craving monster,
I'm going to distract myself from you, I'm going to ignore you,
no, no, no, no." And the craving monster says,
"No, no, come on, you know you want it!" And you're just back here and you're going back and forth
and back and forth and pretty soon the craving monster
overpowers you — you have that cookie,
you have that cigarette, until the craving monster comes back.

And then you're in the tug-of-war again
doing what we've learned how to do. Unless – unless you drop the rope. And what you discover is that if you just allow
the monster to be, to occupy a space in your body, you discover in a few minutes that the craving monster is not
as threatening as he appears. And sometimes, he even goes away. As we break for lunch, we're going to have
choices of what to eat. (Laughter) When you see them, try to be aware
of the cravings in your body, try to be willing to have those cravings. See if they pass on their own. Whatever choice you make,
try to bring a spirit of caring and kindness to yourself, for that is the mountain
that we are all climbing.

Thank you very much. (Applause).

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