I had previously written a post about how mindfulness could be used to ease cravings associated with eating disorders. Now, I am excited to share a technique that is widely used in different types of cravings, urges and even addiction.
Instead of giving in to our urge, or trying to distract ourselves from it just to have it come back stronger than ever and drag us in with all its power, I present you a different technique that's very effective in developing great self-control.
The technique is called Urge Surfing and it helps us to instead of falling back into old, bad habits, move on to new, more beneficial habits. It was developed by the late psychologist Dr. G. Alan Marlatt, who was a pioneer in addiction research and treatment (1).
An urge can be thought of as a sudden craving, or an impulse, which leads to us engaging in something that's not good for us in the long term.
It can be the urge to check your phone, when you should be working; craving sweets, or junk food, when you know it's not healthy for your body; wanting to stay at home and watch series instead of going to the gym just this time; having a glass of wine when you know if can lead to problematic consequences; or falling back into any other habit you would like to change.
We may even experience urges not just mentally, but also physically in our bodies. For example, we may think we feel hungry and therefore feel an urge to have a sweet, or junk food. Or we may feel tired all of a sudden and want to stay at home rather than going to the gym. We may have a headache, making us want to check our phone to take a break from work. But these sensations are typically not what our body or mind needs at that moment.
Urges often come in waves. They come and rise very intensely before they peak. After the peak, they start falling and eventually crash, just like waves in the ocean.
Just like the waves in the ocean, we cannot fight against urges, especially the big ones. If we resist a wave and struggle against it, we may just get taken over by it.
What we can do instead, is we can learn how to ride our urge waves, hence the name urge surfing. Just like riding a wave in the ocean as we surf, we can use the urge wave and its power to our advantage. The most effective way is to stay on top of the wave on our mindful, non-judgemental surfboard and not fall into it with our emotions, giving in to the urge.
And surfing is so much fun!
Here's how to mindfully surf your urge:
1. Take a moment to focus your attention inwards and try to identify where in your body are you feeling the urge.
Closing your eyes, or finding a quite place where you won't be disturbed may help in this step.
Feel exactly where in your body you are feeling the urge and focus your full attention on that spot.
For example, if you're craving chocolate, you may feel the urge either in your stomach, or in your mouth, or both. If you have the urge to stay at home and watch series instead of going to the gym, you may feel sore or tired muscles in your legs or arms.
There is no wrong place to feel the urge.
Bring your attention to where you are feeling your urge. Do not judge it, just mindfully observe the urge and your physical sensation here and now.
2. Bring your attention to the details of your feeling, once you've identified where you feel the urge.
Continue focusing your full attention on the part(s) of the body where you feel the urge. Start with the part where the urge feels the strongest. Notice all the sensations that come to the part of your body. Notice how large space in your body the sensations occupy.
Try to objectively describe the sensations to yourself, without judging them in any way. For example, "I feel emptiness in my stomach, like it is hollow and it is making sounds", or "I feel my brain getting distracted and tired of the work. It feels soggy and rubber-like. My eyes keep wandering off away from the screen."
Some may also see the urge as a specific color, temperature, or a sound. Try to include all your senses in this step in order to really fully understand your sensations, just like you would feel the wave behind you and below your surfboard as you surf.
Fully acknowledging your real sensation takes away the urge's power to control you and give in to it.
3. Shift your attention to your breathing.
Notice your breathing without trying to change anything. Just be mindful of each inhale and exhale you take.
As your breathing at that moment may be related to your urge, notice whether it is fast or slow, shallow or deep, and whether you are breathing through your nose or mouth.
4. Move your attention back to the urge and then back to your breath again.
Notice how this shift in your attention changes the urge. Has it become bigger, or smaller? How intense is it now, compared to when you started this exercise?
Has your breathing changed in any way? Has it become deeper and slower than before? Are you starting to breathe more through your nose, rather than your mouth if you did that before?
As you keep shifting your attention from urge to breath and vice versa, start to prepare for the fall of the urge wave.
5. Notice the fall and eventually crash of the wave.
As all waves in the ocean fall and eventually crash, so does the urge wave.
At this step you may feel your urge becoming smaller and smaller and your mind becoming calmer and more at peace, realizing that the urge is starting to pass.
Notice the urge having less and less power over you, eventually fading completely. Notice when you feel as though the urge has passed, i.e. the urge wave has crashed.
6. Thank yourself for having surfed your urge.
As the urge wave falls and subsides, take a moment to thank yourself for having surfed this urge with great control, not letting the wave drag you in and consume your self-control.
Experience this gratitude within you. Notice how you feel right now and then go about with your day.
Urge surfing, just like general surfing, is a skill. Therefore we have a great chance at becoming better at it with practice. The more we practice urge surfing, the better we develop this skill.
By practicing urge surfing every time we feel the urge, we can develop great self-control.
We all have the power become experienced urge surfers, where no wave is too big and we can ride them all with great precision and control.
Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence and tips on mindfulness that I will post in this blog, by subscribing to my mailing list below.
I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog. Therefore you are more than welcome to leave a comment here, or contact me on email@example.com
Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Creator of The Greater Mindfulness
1. White, Helene & Larimer, Mary & Sher, Kenneth & Witkiewitz, Katie. (2011). In Memoriam G. Alan Marlatt 1941–2011. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 72. 357-360.