The Health Section

Creating healthy habits with mindfulness: Getting to know your craving mind

Our minds operate on a reward-based system. There’s a trigger, which causes us to engage in a behavior, which results in a reward. Can training your mind to be more aware of what’s going on in the present moment help prevent cravings and break unhealthy habits?

The research of Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., shows that it can.

Brewer is the director of research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness. Over the last decade, Brewer has conducted groundbreaking research on mindfulness and behavior change at the Center for Mindfulness, as well as Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He was the first speaker of Aetna’s “Mindfulness Matters Speaker Series” in November, which took place at the company’s Mindfulness Center in Hartford, Connecticut.

“Bringing Dr. Brewer to speak was an exciting opportunity for us that allowed us to explore another approach to addressing health challenges,” said Andy Lee, Aetna’s chief mindfulness officer. “We currently offer several resources and opportunities for our associates to develop and deepen their mindfulness practice, but learning about the research firsthand helped move us from concepts to practical, real-world application.”

In his talk, “Creating Healthy Habits with Mindfulness: Getting to Know Your Craving Mind,” Brewer shared with Aetna associates his research and approach to behavior change and creating healthy habits.

“If we understand how our mind works, we can actually target our minds in a very precise and mechanistic process,” Brewer said.


Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., director of research at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness, left, speaks with Andy Lee, Aetna’s chief mindfulness officer, during the first “Mindfulness Matters Speaker Series” in Hartford, Connecticut. | Eric Vo


In a 2011 study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Brewer and other researchers in Yale’s Department of Psychiatry wanted to test whether mindfulness can be as effective as proven treatment methods. The study looked at 88 individuals, who smoked an average of 20 cigarettes a day and wanted to quit smoking. The group was randomly split up to receive mindfulness training or the American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking treatment.

“When they went into the mindfulness training, on our first night we said, ‘OK, go ahead and smoke,’” Brewer said. “They looked at us like, ‘Is this the experiment?’ They didn’t know what to do because they came in wanting to quit smoking; we said, ‘It’s OK. Just pay attention as you smoke.’”

The participants noticed the tastes and smells of smoking when they were mindful smoking, Brewer explained, adding a person reported it “smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals.”

“[One participant] came in knowing that she wanted to quit smoking, knowing that smoking was bad for her, knowing this in her mind, yet she couldn’t quit smoking,” Brewer said. “… Mindfulness is coming in and breaking this link between smoking and craving.

“Right then, right there, they start to see this isn’t as good. They’re learning that this reward is not as rewarding and it starts to change their behavior.”


Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., director of research at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness, speaks to Aetna associates during the “Mindfulness Matters Speaker Series” in Hartford, Connecticut. | Eric Vo


Brewer’s research found mindfulness training at a four-month follow-up with the participants was five-times better than the Freedom From Smoking program.

The study’s findings led Brewer and his team to develop digital therapeutics to help people, who are trying to quit smoking, with mindfulness training. Other digital therapeutics were created to study emotional and stress eating and anxiety.

“They don’t have to come into my clinic. They don’t have to come into an office. They don’t have to come into anywhere. We can bring it right to their fingertips,” he said. “We can help people understand their minds.”


Aetna associates watch an animation explaining cravings and how the mind operates on a reward-based system during the “Mindfulness Matters Speaker Series” in Hartford, Connecticut. | Eric Vo


When fighting an addiction, a person will sometimes substitute the behavior with something else; a person trying to quit smoking may eat instead of smoking a cigarette. But Brewer believes mindfulness can allow a person to tap into something internally and that’s always readily available to help develop new habits – curiosity.

“We can start to turn from external behaviors and needing something outside of ourselves to more internally-driven behaviors that are always available to us,” he said. “We can tap into simply being with our experience, rather than feeling this urge to do something about it. And if this is the case, we can start to provide these ‘calorie-free’ moments of awareness that are always available. And we can start to learn that process so that it becomes our new habit.”