For people in recovery, the experience of intense cravings for drugs or alcohol can be extremely difficult to manage. These cravings or urges threaten your hard-won sobriety and so it is absolutely essential that you have a plan and strategy for dealing with them.
There are lots of options, including calling your sponsor, friend, family member, specialist charity/organisation helpline or heading out to a 12-Step fellowship meeting, for example. However, one option known as “urge surfing” may provide relief quickly and can be practiced almost anywhere, anytime.
Surfing Your Urges
Rather than trying to stop, ignore or avoid your urges all together, surf the urge instead!
Urge surfing is a mindfulness technique that rests on the principle of accepting a craving, urge or temptation for what it is, rather than resisting it and wanting it to go away.
Background Of Urge Surfing
Urge surfing is a mindfulness technique can be used to help with any addictive behaviour such as gambling, overeating, inappropriate sex or any other destructive impulses.
Urges for substance use rarely last for very long if there is no opportunity to indulge them. People admitted to a high quality detoxification centres where there is no access to their drug of choice often find it remarkable how little amount of cravings they get.
Where there is no opportunity to use then there is no internal struggle. It is this internal struggle that feeds the cravings, urges and temptations.
Trying to fight cravings is like trying to block a waterfall. We end up being inundated and overwhelmed. With the approach of mindfulness, we step aside and watch the water (cravings, temptations & urges) just go right past.
Most of us will have had past experiences of urges passing. This is an important strategy to identify, as it can greatly improve self efficacy for riding out urges, cravings and temptations.
The main message is that urges do not have to be acted upon.
If there is no ability/availability to use or drink, urges are easier, less frequent & easier to manage.
How Fighting Urges Feeds Them
Often people try to eliminate urges by distraction or talking themselves out of them. This usually just feeds the urges and creates the illusion that they are interminable until you give in to them.
There is plenty of research to show that suppressing a thought feeling or sensation, including pain ultimately increases it. (Clark Ball & Pape 1991, Gold & Wegner 1995, Wegner, Schneider, Carter & White, 1987, Wegner, Schneider, Knutson & McMahon 1991, Cioffi & Holloway 1993)
Just try to not think of something in particular. I have a friend who repeatedly tells his workshop attendees not to think of a little green frog sitting on his head. Of course the more he says it the more the participants end up thinking about the little green frog. That is what happens inside our own minds when we try not to think of something.
When we try to argue with ourselves or our urges we do no better. We end up being like those characters in the old cartoons where they have a little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other.
The more they argue the more stressed we become. As the stress increases the power of the urges also increase. So the devil almost always wins.
The rare person who succeeds in arguing their way through urges becomes incredibly tense and obsessed with not giving in.
That sort of person in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is known as a “dry drunk”. Not only are they very stressed themselves, they also are a cause of stress for everyone around them!
This is why urge surfing is a much better option for dealing with cravings, temptations and urges.
THE EXERCISE: EXPERIENCING THE CHANGING NATURE AND IMPERMANENCE OF URGES
- Sitting with your back unsupported in a chair or on a cushion on the floor
- Start mindfulness meditation, waiting for any sense of discomfort e.g. Restlessness, an itch
- Noting the desire to move and resisting it. Noticing thoughts that arise, e.g.:
- “I wish this itch would go”…………..
- ”It is driving me crazy”…………..
- ”This too will pass” – in a calm tone………..
- ”This too will pass” – in an irritable tone…………..
- ”It is is not bloody well passing!”………….
- ”I would love to scratch right now” etc etc
- These thoughts are just thoughts. So gently bringing your attention back to your breath and bodily sensations
- Noting the changing position, shape and quality of the discomfort over time. Being interested in feeling it as precisely as you can. Noticing how the shape and intensity changes with the cycle of the breath. Is it stronger during the in breath or during the out breath?
- You might find your thoughts spontaneously going to other matters,e.g. Your shopping list, a fight with you partner, a football game, planning a holiday.
- These are still just thoughts.
- Gently bringing your attention back to your breath and body sensations. They are probably different again.
You have just observed the changing nature and impermanence of urges. When you notice the physical sensations with interest, you are directly facing the urges rather than feeding them through fighting them.
The Technique Of Urge Surfing
Mindfulness allows us to bypass these problems associated with avoidance and disputation. Instead of trying to distract from or argue with the unpleasant thoughts, feelings or urges, mindfulness simply makes the thoughts, feelings or urges less important.
When we use mindfulness, we stay exposed to the thoughts, feelings or urges for their natural duration without feeding or repressing them.
In fact, if we just let an urge be – non judgmentally – without feeding it or fighting it (Fighting it is just another way of feeding it anyway) then it will crest subside and pass.
Of course, the urges come back again but over a period of time. However each time you outlast a bout of cravings, they become less intense and less frequent the longer you go without giving in to your urges, cravings or temptations and use or drink again.
We don’t feed the urges and we don’t give in to the addiction. Moreover, our mindfulness technique of urge surfing improves. If we have a slip and give into the impulse, we will have increased urges for a while. However we can still apply urge surfing all over again if you were to lapse/relapse.
Feeding Stray Cats Are Like Your Urges
Giving in to urges can be compared with feeding a stray cat. In the beginning, you may want to feed the cat because it cries for food and attention. You may find that it is a nice thing to do and you feel good for being kind. However, your act of feeding the cat encourages it to repeat its cries and attention seeking.
You find yourself giving in each time. Over a period of time the cat grows bolder and other cats join it in crying for food and attention.
You may begin to regret your actions, as a large number of strays are now contributing to noise and other problems. But you cannot resist their cries. You may believe that their survival now depends on you and that your actions are more important than ever. They have you trapped in a cycle of problem behaviours.
If you make a decision to resist feeding the “cat army,” there will be loud and pitiful cries for a few days.
In fact, they will be at their strongest when you have decided not to reinforce their behaviour. Soon however, they will come to realise that they are no longer being reinforced and will gradually diminish and disappear.
Your decision to stick with the action you know is best for you will “undo” the problem that you unknowingly built up in the first place.
Urges do go away, but they may be very strong for a short while immediately after quitting.
Knowing that they will weaken will help you to continue to surf the impulses that you feel, especially in response to your personal triggers.
Urge Surfing Summary
To experience the cravings in a new way and to “ride them out” until they go away
- Remember that urges pass by themselves.
- Imagined that urges are like ocean waves that arrive crest and subside. They are small when they start, will grow in size and then will break up and dissipate.
- Practise mindfulness regularly and especially notice any impulses or urges that appear. Then we are well prepared to ride these waves without giving in to the urge by using mindfulness. Your brain will have built the circuitry that makes this process more manageable.
URGE SURFING ITSELF
- Practise mindfulness
- Watching the breath without altering it. Allowing the breath to breathe itself.
- Noticing your thoughts.
- Without judging them, feeding them or fighting them gently bringing your attention back to the breath
- Noticing the craving experience as it affects the body.
- Focusing on one area where the urge is being felt and noticing what is occurring.
- Noticing quality, position, boundaries & intensity of the sensation
- Noticing how these change with the in-breath and out-breath
- Repeating the focusing process with each part of the body involved.
- Being curious about what occurs and noticing changes over time.
The key is replacing the fearful wish that craving will go away with interest in our experience. When we do this, we notice the cravings change, crest and subside like waves in the ocean. In this way it becomes more manageable.
The Research Behind Urge Surfing – How & Why It Works
The ideas behind urge surfing arose from the research of clinical psychologist Dr. G. Alan Marlatt, who worked on relapse prevention until his passing in 2011.
Dr. Marlatt realised that urges—his name for the cravings those in recovery often experience, often have a physical manifestations in the body. A severe headache, an upset stomach, a racing heartbeat, tension across the shoulders or back, any and all of those sensations might accompany strong urges to use drugs or drink alcohol.
These sensations are particularly problematic, because a person seeking relief from them may be sorely tempted to fall back into patterns of substance use because of the intensity or frequency of these mental and physical manifestations.
As a result, a person experiencing these cravings must have an effective strategy for addressing them.
Urge surfing is a kind of mindfulness technique that acknowledges that the cravings and sensations are probably unavoidable but can be dealt with by bringing our attention to them, describing them to ourselves and thereby reducing their power to push us toward bad decisions.
One of the many positive things about this approach is that it accepts difficulties rather than allowing a person to feel guilt or shame when cravings arise. Urge surfing acknowledges the likelihood of cravings and provides an option for addressing them with intention.
As a side note, mindfulness practice in general—not just the urge surfing technique described above, can be a powerful tool for those in recovery.
The practice helps you stay focused on the present moment rather than reliving the past or worrying about the future. This focus on the present can go a long way to lessening feelings of regret and/or anxiety.
Drawing Your Urge Surfing Practices
It can sometimes be helpful to physically draw your urge on paper as a wave, graph or any other form you find helpful for you. You can then see a physical representation of your urge and you can then look back at them in the future when you’re having a particularly strong or prolonged urge to remind yourself that they do eventually settle back down and go away again as proven by your previous urge waves!
Share Your Urge Surfing Examples & Help Your DnD Brothers & Sisters!
Help your fellow DnD brothers and sisters who may be struggling with similar urges, cravings and temptations as you by taking a picture and send them to us so we can see your urge waves. They will help and encourage others with their urge waves by seeing your examples! You can send them to us via private message or by using the hashtag #urgesurfing
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