Urge Surfing - A 5 Step Guide to Coping with Cravings
When was the last time you felt a strong urge to do something? Really think about it. Was it in response to an emotion such as sadness, anger or fear, or was it more of a biological urge (e.g. to sleep, have sex, to drink water when thirsty)? Or some combination of the two?
If someone jumps in front of you in a queue in Asda you might feel a strong urge to shout “get to the back of the f**cking line a**hole”. Or, if you’re like me, when you’re feeling stressed and anxious, you may have a strong urge to demolish a sharing size bag of Kettle Chips. Of course, there are also powerful urges linked to addiction, and not just addiction to drugs or alcohol. This could be an urge to gamble, to watch porn, to overspend, or to eat junk food. Whether food is an addiction or not is a topic for another day, but I know from personal experience and working with lots of clients over the years that the urge to eat (usually junk food) can be overwhelming at times of stress, even when there’s no hint of physical hunger.
Here’s the thing: even though it might not feel like it at the time, you have the power to choose whether you act on the urge or not.
The Power to Choose
You have 2 choices when an urge or craving shows up:
Act on it.
Don’t act on it.
Of course, to be able to make this decision, you need to first notice the fact that you’re having a craving. Then, once you’ve acknowledged it, it can help to ask yourself -
“If I act on this craving, will I be acting like the sort of person I want to be? Will it take me closer to, or further away from, where I want to get to?”
If the answer is that acting on the craving will take you in the direction you want your life to go, then it makes sense to give in and satisfy that urge. For example, if you have spent all morning on Zoom calls sitting at your desk and by lunch time you feel a strong pull to get outside and stretch your legs, then if you want to be the sort of person who values exercise and taking care of your body, then it makes sense to go ahead and take the short walk.
However, if you’re in agony most days with sore joints because you’re carrying excess weight but you want to be the sort of person who can play on the floor with their kids, then it makes sense not to give in to the urge to eat the 1kg bar of Dairy Milk in one go. But like many things in life, even though this seems simple, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. So below I’ll talk you through a strategy that can help you surf those urges when they show up and you don’t want to act on them.
What is Urge Surfing?
Psychologists Alan Marlatt and Judith Gordon coined the term “urge surfing” back in the 1980s when they were working to support those in recovery from drug addiction to prevent relapse. They noted that when we try and resist our urges we get caught up in a struggle and it can be hard to focus on the action you actually want to take. The struggle can feel like quicksand - the more you fight it, try to ignore it, or try to control the craving, the messier the struggle can get. However, if we treat the urge like a wave that we’re learning to surf, then we give it space to rise and fall and keep surfing until that wave passes.
Let’s take the wave analogy a little further. Think back to a time you sat and watched the waves come and go, either in person or on TV. They start off small and build gently, gradually gathering speed and size. Then the wave will continue to grow until it reaches a peak, and after it’s peaked (or crested, technically speaking) then it will subside.
Cravings are exactly the same. They build in intensity before peaking and then subsiding. When you’re in the grips of a craving, it can feel like the intensity will never stop building, but this isn’t true. If you can ride the wave and make space for the craving, it WILL start to ease off and then subside. In the early days, the urges might come thick and fast so it feels like the cravings for food or booze (or whatever your vice) are almost constant. But urge surfing is a skill like any other, and it requires practice.
5 Steps to Surf an Urge
Step 1: Notice the Craving
This seems obvious, but it’s important so it needs to be said. You have to notice what’s happening to be able to do anything about it. So take a moment to just observe your experience. What are you craving? What thoughts are you having about your cravings and where do you feel the cravings in your body?
Step 2: Name the Craving
Once you’ve noticed the urge it’s important that you name what’s happening. Acknowledge, “I’m craving X”. You can say this silently to yourself, or you can write it down if you keep a journal (or make a note in your phone).
Step 3: Prepare to Ride the Waves
Take some deep breaths, steady yourself, and get ready to make room for the craving. You’re not going to try and push it away or control it. You’re going to give the craving enough time and space to do its thing and expend all its energy.
Step 4: Observe the Craving as it Runs its Course
This is the surfing part. Here you’re going to watch and notice the craving as it builds, peaks and eases. I’m not going to lie, this can feel really difficult and unbearable at times, but no matter how overwhelming the urge gets, you have space for it. Breathe into it, allow it, notice it.
Your mind will probably start telling you stories about how you’re “weak”, or how if you just give in today you’ll be able to resist tomorrow. These are just more waves - try not to get tangled with these thoughts and just notice them. It can be helpful to keep a bit of distance from these thoughts by saying to yourself “I’m now having the thought that I want to smoke and that I’ll always be a smoker”. It’s just a thought and the craving part of your brain trying to convince you to give in to the urge.
It may also be helpful to rate the intensity of the urge on a scale of 1 to 10 at various points during the “surfing”. For example, “I’m craving a Vodka and it’s a 6 just now”. If you decide to do this, try not to get too hung up on what’s happening with the numbers - this is just a tool to help you continue to notice whether the urge is rising, peaking or falling.
Step 5: Check in with Your Values and Do What Matters
Ask yourself whether giving into the craving will move you towards the sort of person you want to be. If you’ve read this far I’m guessing the answer is no, and so the next question to ask yourself is -
“What small step can I take right now that will take me closer to the person that I want to be?”
This could be anything that is aligned with what’s important to you. And it can be something tiny - we’re talking baby steps here. But baby steps in the right direction.
Urge surfing is a skill that requires practice, but we are only human and we can’t resist all of our less helpful urges 100% of the time. If you set yourself up to aim for perfection by saying you’ll never act on any self-defeating urge again then you’re likely to fail and to be miserable! Try and accept that as you learn to surf the waves, you will likely fall off the board (more than once). And you have a choice here too - you can wallow in self-defeat and self-hatred, or you can dust yourself off, learn from your experience, then get back on the board.
Balance and flexibility are also important. You may have decided that your approach to recovery involves abstinence, but if you’re abstaining from say alcohol this is enough of a task without also saying you’ll never eat chocolate again. And even with abstinence there are likely to be lapses and bumps in the road - try to approach these from a place of self-compassion and forgiveness rather than self-judgement or criticism (easier said than done, I know - I’ve made a note to write a future blog post on this topic!).
This blog post was based on Chapter 15 of an excellent book called the Happiness Trap by Russ Harris (LINK). If you want to go deeper on this topic, I’d highly recommend picking up this book. Of course, urge surfing is just one tool for overcoming addiction and making valued behaviour change, so watch this space for more content that covers a range of other strategies.
If you’re not already, please do follow me on Instagram @drclaireogilvie as I post fairly regularly there.
Lastly, if you want to explore cravings and how to deal with them further through therapy, please get in touch to schedule a free, no obligation, 15 minute consultation.