I quit Instagram with meditation, and you can too
At the beginning of the pandemic, Instagram felt like an escape. I couldn’t meet up with friends at the movies or concerts or bars, so I upped my Instagram intake. And then it became a tick. Sitting on the couch? Check Instagram. Talking on the phone with my mom? Check Instagram. Standing in line at the store? Check Instagram.
It got worse late last year, when COVID snuffed out holiday traditions. So I started to limit how much time I spent on the app by telling my phone to block me after 30 minutes. Then I’d unblock the block. I pushed Instagram to the last slot on the last page of my phone’s Home screen. Yet I still couldn’t shake it.
I was hungry for the wave of information that crashed over me when I scrolled and tapped — so and so’s pregnant, someone got a foster kitty, that focaccia looks tasty, oh that’s a nice succulent — and the dopamine jolt when people viewed my Stories or liked my posts about my flourishing quarantine garden. My brain had been tricked to instinctively go for Instagram whenever I was sad, bored, or burnt out, because it associated Instagram with joy. The same thing may happen when you eat Ben & Jerry’s chocolatey, marshmallowy Phish Food out of the carton, or vape. The next time we’re sad or bored, we crave Instagram, ice cream, or Juul.
Then I took a course on the meditation app Headspace called “Coping with Cravings.” After a few weeks, when I plopped on the couch and instinctively reached for my phone to mindlessly wander through Instagram, I used techniques I’d learned during the mindfulness meditations. Over time, they helped me put my phone down.
Mindfulness, or paying attention with curiosity but not judgment, is often used as a salve for anxiety and stress reduction, but it can help people respond to cravings too. Much of the research into mindfulness and cravings has been focused on eating disorders and smoking. However, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Jud Brewer, author of The Craving Mind (2017) and Unwinding to Relax (2021), said mindfulness techniques can also help with social media cravings.
Social media overuse has been a growing concern for years, from parents worried about how much time their kids spend online to movies spotlighting our collective fixation. And many of the ropes we use to climb out of the rabbit hole fray easily. We can easily turn off limits we set on digital wellbeing apps, just like I did. Willpower may work for some, but not all.
But if we use mindfulness to tap into our brain pathways that associate cravings with pleasurable rewards, we’ll have a better chance of breaking our habits, according to Brewer’s research.
The technique I learned from Headspace acts more as a temporary distraction, but it worked for me. Meanwhile, Brewer’s mindfulness strategies encourage you to act on a craving, but help you realize that doing so isn’t as rewarding as you thought it’d be, so the spell of the craving eventually breaks.
“Ultimately, if you want something to work broad-scale for everybody, they have to tap into the reward-based learning system,” said Brewer.
Distractions vs. reward revamps
In Headspace’s 30-day “Coping with Cravings” course, an instructor encourages you to pay attention to your breath and note, but not engage with, any distracting thoughts during the 10- to 20-minute sessions. I’d imagine noting and then swiping trespassing thoughts like an Avenger in front of a smart screen explaining away plot holes. Days later, you move on to imagining sunlight slowly filling your body from your toes to your head. I imagined a golden liquid sloshing through me like honey wine filling a barrel, speeding up as it neared my head. After trying this within the meditation, you’re instructed to take that flow of sunlight and plug it into your day, speeding it up to a 10- to 30-second exercise.
Now, when I have a craving for Instagram while watching Netflix or waiting in line at the post office, I take a breath, casually note my urge to reach for my phone, Avenger-swish it away, and fast-forward the glistening light filling me up. It wasn’t so easy at first, but after a lot of practice, it now stops me when an Instagram craving hits.
There’s a psychological theory that cravings are linked to images cooked up by our brains. Since we can only visualize one thing at a time, if we imagine something else, we can interrupt the craving, said Dr. Katy Tapper, who studies food cravings at City University of London’s Centre for Excellence in Mindfulness Research.
“You’ve got this limited resource in your brain. If you’re using it up thinking about a rainbow, you can’t also be thinking about yourself on Instagram. It’s at capacity,” Tapper, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, explained.
Brewer compared my glowing light to distraction techniques some people use to quit smoking, but he cautioned they don’t work for everyone, and they may replace one bad habit with another. Eating candy to divert you from smoking, for example, can lead to unwanted weight gain. Other researchers have found or can disrupt cravings, but playing Tetris instead of going on Instagram is just swapping one phone activity for another, Tapper noted. And what if you don’t have any clay around when a craving strikes?
Instead, you can use mindfulness strategies that prompt you to pay attention to your thoughts and feelings (without flogging yourself) to eventually become disenchanted with your bad habit. Your own curiosity is an endless resource that’s always available to you, Brewer explained.
“If you want to change it, you have to rub your brain’s little…nose in its own poop so that it clearly smells how stinky it is.”
In a recent study, which hasn’t been published yet, he asked people to imagine eating a food they’re craving, what it tastes like, how it feels settling in their stomach, and the emotions that bubble up as they think about that treat. Afterward, they ate what they’d been craving, paying attention to how it tasted and felt as they swallowed. When asked how the two compared, many realized, “Oh, this isn’t as great as I thought it was.”
More than two decades ago, Brewer taught a similar mindfulness course to smokers. Smokers in his course quit at five times the rate of those in a different group who took an American Lung Association class called “Freedom from Smoking” at the same time. After closely paying attention to the feeling and taste of smoking in the moment, one addict was disgusted by how smoking tasted like stinky cheese and chemicals, which helped her quit.
“If you want to change it, you have to rub your brain’s little…nose in its own poop so that it clearly smells how stinky it is,” Brewer writes in Unwinding Anxiety.
Brewer taught smokers a mnemonic developed by another meditation instructor to use when they wanted a cigarette: RAIN. The same strategy can be used to investigate our feelings around social media. Here’s how he breaks it down in The Craving Mind:
– RECOGNIZE/RELAX into what is arising (for example, your craving)
– ACCEPT/ALLOW it to be there
– INVESTIGATE bodily sensations, emotion, and thoughts (for example, as, “What is happening in my body or mind right now?”)
– NOTE what is happening from moment to moment
He’s converted his in-person course into an app called with digital health and wellness company Sharecare, where he acts as executive medical director. For $24.99 a month, smokers and vapers get daily mindfulness lessons, access to addiction experts over live video chat, and an active community message board. The app also includes a so-called “craving tool” that prompts users to rate, on a scale of zero to 10, how rewarding they think a behavior may be versus how they feel while paying close attention as they carry it out.
Just like it took practice for me to get the yellow light to block me from tapping on Instagram, updating your brain’s reward settings won’t be instantaneous. Brewer’s lab found people had to use the craving tool 10 to 15 times before the reward value associated with their cravings dropped to zero.
“We recalibrate our brains to stop when we’re slipping from it being helpful to not-so-helpful,” Brewer said of a craving.
There’s another step in breaking the cravings spell, he added. Once you decide you want to make a change (as in, you already feel like your craving is a detriment) and you’ve started to continuously investigate the rewards you think you get out of a craving compared to how you actually feel while smoking or scrolling on Instagram, you have to give yourself what Brewer calls a “bigger, better offer” to “ride out our cravings.”
He recalled a former patient with two small kids. During dinner, she’d stand away from the table and check her Instagram feed. Until one day she snapped out of the daze and thought, “Oh my gosh, what, I’m not having dinner with my kids!”
“She was so caught up in that, she didn’t see those negative consequences. But as soon as she saw that, she was like, ‘Whoa!’ And then the bigger, better offer was sitting down and having dinner with her kids and putting her phone away and not modeling that for her kids,” Brewer said.
Mindfulness techniques can be a bigger, better offer too. In Unwinding Anxiety, Brewer suggests doing breathing or loving kindness exercises when you have a craving — you don’t even have to lie down and close your eyes, as suggested in the links — and over time the rewards you get from those actions will outweigh that of your craving. For me, that bigger, better offer could be imagining the warm light.
Still, mindfulness is often paired with other strategies in cravings research, like the community support and talk therapy offered in Craving to Quit. It’s hard to parse whether one element is more effective than another at curbing cravings or how well they work on their own, Tapper said. However, brain scans have shown that the same parts of our noggins that light up when we have cravings will dim with mindfulness meditation practices.
Tapper’s been testing various mindfulness techniques to decipher which work best and for whom. In a study that’s currently undergoing peer review, her lab found that visualizations are better at preventing cravings before and after they’re triggered if paired with observing your thoughts like a spectator, while your eyes are open.
For her study, she asked chocolate lovers to keep their eyes open and follow one of three prompts. They were told to imagine floating leaves, let their minds wander, or when a thought arose (any thought, not just those about wanting chocolate), to place it on a leaf and watch as it floated away. Observing thoughts floating on a leaf worked best at suppressing cravings before they were triggered. Her research team also asked participants to sniff a chocolate bar to stimulate a craving, and all three groups did the exercises again. Both leaf imagery exercises were better at reducing cravings after sniffing the chocolate than the mind-wandering tactic.
What about in moderation?
Brewer found his patients who overcame overeating habits with mindfulness could enjoy eating some chocolate without falling back into their old habits. He believes the same to be true of social media.
“This isn’t about demonizing social media. It’s just about seeing how crafty they are at making us addicted to them so that we can be in control rather than having them drive the show,” Brewer advised. “Are we a slave to our cravings versus do we know our brains well enough, are we disenchanted with the behavior to the point where we can just go on?”
“This isn’t about demonizing social media. It’s just about seeing how crafty they are at making us addicted to them so that we can be in control rather than having them drive the show.”
He too was once obsessed with Twitter, describing it as candy when he first started using it. (Neuroscientists, they’re just like us!) But after he realized it was a time suck, he became dissatisfied with the app; the reward he got from checking his likes and retweets diminished. Now he limits his activity to once or twice a day to discuss his work.
“It’s fulfilling that need, which is I have to do this for my job, and it’s not being driven by a want, like ‘Oh, I want to see how many likes I got on Twitter,'” he said.
A few months after I started visualizing that golden light, I removed Instagram from my phone altogether. My daily meditations and off-the-cuff visualizations didn’t get rid of my craving, but they helped me refrain from acting upon it. I still get emails from Instagram luring me to come back. I feel the pull sometimes. Even writing this, I felt waves of desire to reinstall it. I had to stop a few times to take deep breaths and picture that warm light.
After speaking to Brewer, I’ve started deeply thinking about why I wanted to check Instagram so often. I wanted comfort, but I can’t remember the last time Instagram truly soothed me. In the past year, it’s mostly upset me as I’ve been cooped up because of COVID. This may be because Instagram isn’t actually fixing the loneliness I’m feeling.
“Let’s say that I’m missing a social connection. I feel like I need to be connected. If I try to fix that by going on social media, I’m only going to be driving that more because it’s not really a true connection,” Brewer said. “So if I recognize, ‘Oh I’m feeling lonely. I’m going to do what actually helps. What do I need rather than what do I want?’ If we differentiate between the needs and the wants, then we can more easily work with the wants.”
Perhaps one day I can learn to check Instagram without falling back into the habit loop. Maybe my next step is texting a friend, instead of just tapping through their Instagram story.