I know you’re saying, “She’s a trainer and healthy and fit. What does she know about needing to quit anything?” But all of us have things that we work on and areas for improvement. For myself, it was quitting coffee. I made it through three years of college without ever touching the stuff, but senior year, I began a lifelong love affair. The first ten years of my training career were in NYC, where the caffeine might as well come straight out of the pipes instead of water! Then I moved to Vancouver, Canada, where short winter days and overcast skies make people run to coffee houses and tanning salons. Next was L.A. where some truly fabulous coffee culture exists.
When I became a trainer, I started keeping comparatively odd hours. I have to work when others have free time. So that means starting work at 6 or 7 am and often working nights until 8pm. Quickly, I was drinking a cup at 5 am simply to force myself to wake up, to be ready to cheerily whoop ass! At midday, I would indulge in a second helping because at daybreak I wasn’t alert enough to enjoy the ritual of the coffee, the warmth of my cup in my hand, the aroma doing a slow belly dance towards my nostrils and the bitter, creamy, dark chocolatey flavor delicately sipped while my feet are up. Yup, you can tell – “Addict.” Often, I would get a third cup on my way back to work to perk me up for a few hours on my night shift.
Once while chilling on a Saturday, I was watching an old Western and they were boiling a pot of coffee over a campfire and all I could think was, “Man, that looks so good, I could lick the screen.” Clearly I was addicted. But it wasn’t until I started wearing my heart rate monitor more consistently that I really got shocked. After a bout of flu, where I hadn’t wanted coffee for about a week, I realized my resting heart rate had dropped by about ten beats. That is significant! And I decided that I didn’t want to be addicted to anything.
So I gave myself six months to give it up, knowing full well, that I would fall off the bandwagon. My goal at first was to have one coffee per day. And at first, I only succeeded two days in seven. Still I considered it a victory! Week by week I got a little better. I started being able to go two days in a row. But then three days into the plan and I’d have a long haul, exhausting work schedule and and I would turn to coffee. But I didn’t beat myself up about it or throw out the plan. The next day, I just stuck to one a day. And that went on for a while until I started finding that my brain would say, let’s have a second and I would make one. But now, I would find halfway through the cup that I didn’t want the rest. It actually didn’t taste good. And it would sit stone cold in the cup until I dumped it out. There was no willpower involved!
On a chemical level this is how your brain works whether it’s sugar, caffeine, nicotine or other hard drugs. If you eat too much of something it causes a dopamine surge in your hormones and that bonds to the incoming substance. That’s why you feel elated for a moment. But the brain recognizes that the incoming substance was not great for you internally. So it prepares for the next time by actually decreasing the number of receptors that can bond to the substance. In order then to achieve the same level of euphoria, you have to flood the system with more than you originally put in. Thus, it becomes a vicious circle. It also explains why I could have three cups of coffee and still sleep perfectly fine.
And willpower is something that neuroscientists and behavioral therapists alike have discovered seemingly comes in small doses. Studies have shown that if you through sheer force of will deny yourself sweets all day, you are likely to vent and splurge on something else, like a shopping spree or a binge night at the bar. The body and mind DO NOT like restriction! Willpower will backfire. You hold it in and then splurge. And if you fail to hold it in, you’ll just feel like you failed on your goal. Balance is totally the way to go. Hence, why I gave myself six months to gently change my behavior.
It is the social aspect that’s as difficult to quit as well. It’s like a smoker trying not to have a cigarette when everyone else is puffing away. Feeling like you have to order water when everyone else is getting a sugary, amped up Starbuck’s drink is a bummer. I dealt with that by first realizing how much money I was saving by not buying coffee everyday. And then, I didn’t completely give up the “social” element. For a while, I did not go when coworkers were headed to the shop for something to do! I did step out and call a friend or sit in the sunshine for a minute. And I still went for a really good latte on Saturday and Sunday mornings. When I got far enough along in the chemical shift that the second cup tasted bad in my mouth, I realized that I was far enough along to start going with friends again at the mid-aftertoon break time. And I was happily able to either order something else or nothing else at all!