Urge surfing is a technique developed by Dr. Alan Marlatt, Director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, as part of a program of relapse prevention for people recovering from addictions to alcohol and other drugs. The technique can also be used to help with any destructive impulse, such as gambling, overeating, or compulsive sex.
Urges for substances are usually short-lived. If there is no opportunity to use, they rarely last longer than a few minutes. People in detox centers where there is no access to their drug of choice are often surprised at how few cravings they feel. When there is no opportunity to use there is little internal struggle, and it is internal struggle which feeds the cravings. Trying to fight cravings is a little like trying to block a waterfall. We just wind up being inundated. In the practice of mindfulness, we step aside and watch the water (cravings, impulses & urges) just flow past.
Exercise: Experiencing The Changing Nature & Impermanence of Urges
– Sit with back unsupported in a chair or on a cushion on the floor
– Come into a state of mindfulness
– Notice when any sense of discomfort arises, such as restlessness or an itch
– Note the desire to move without acting on it
– Notice thoughts that arise, such as “I wish this itch would go,” “It is driving me crazy,” “This too will pass” “It is not passing!” “I would love to scratch right now” etc.
– Remember that these thoughts are just thoughts. Let them go, and bring your attention back to your breath and bodily sensations
– Note the changing position, shape and quality of the discomfort over time. Be interested in feeling it as precisely as you can. Notice 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. These, too, are just thoughts. Without judging yourself, bring your attention back to your breath and body sensations. Notice if they have changed.
You’ve just observed the changing nature and impermanence of urges. When you pay attention to the physical sensations with interest, you are directly facing the urges rather than feeding them through fighting them or acting on them.
Mindfulness and Urges
Mindfulness allows us to bypass the problems associated with avoiding or fighting urges. Instead of trying to distract from or argue with the unpleasant thoughts, feelings or urges, we simply stay with them and observe them for their natural duration without trying to contend with them. Most importantly, when practicing mindfulness, we don’t futurize or catastrophize about the urges. That is, we don’t make ourselves more anxious with fearful thoughts about how the urges are going to get worse and worse to the point of being unbearable. If we just stay with our present experience and let an urge be – non-judgmentally, and without feeding it, fighting it, or futurizing about it, then it crests, subsides and disappears on its own.
Of course urges do return, just as waves come and go repeatedly. But every time you experience a bout of cravings without feeding them or succumbing to the addiction, they become less intense and less frequent. It is crucial to remember that urges, like everything else, are impermanent. They subside whether you act on them or not. Every time you successfully surf an episode of craving your capacity for mindfulness improves, as does your ability to tolerate unpleasant experiences. You begin to have a gratifying sense of freedom because you have growing confidence that you don’t have to be the slave of your impulses. If you have a slip and give into the craving you will experience increased urges for a while, but in that case you can begin urge surfing all over again.
Preparation for Urge Surfing Practice
1. Remember that urges go away by themselves.
2. Imagine that urges are like ocean waves. They arrive, crest and subside.
3. Practice mindfulness regularly and especially notice any impulses or urges that appear. Notice how these desires arise, stay for a while, and then pass away, leaving no trace.
The Practice of Urge Surfing
• Practice mindfulness.
• Watch the breath. Don’t alter it. Let the breath breathe itself.
• Notice your thoughts.
• Without judging them, feeding them or fighting them gently bring your attention back to the breath
• Notice the effect of craving on the body.
• Focus on one area where the urge is being felt and noticing what is occurring. Notice quality, position, boundaries & intensity of the sensation
• Notice how these change with the in-breath and out-breath
• Repeat the focusing process with each part of the body involved.
• Be curious about what occurs and notice changes over time.
The key is replacing the fearful wish for craving to go away with interest in our experience. When we do this we understand that cravings are nothing more than temporary unpleasant sensations that arise and subside like waves in the ocean. When we see them in this way they become more manageable.
A Word of Caution
One obvious danger in this practice is that, if you allow yourself to stray from mindful awareness of your present experience into romantic futurizing about how good it would feel to scratch the itch, then you’re at risk for a relapse. One way to avoid this danger is to do the practice, especially the first few times, in the presence of someone you trust, such as a therapist or friend in recovery. You can also “bookend” the practice by calling someone before you do it and again after you’re finished to describe what happened. It will also help if you do at least a few minutes of mindfulness meditation every day when you aren’t feeling urges. Doing this will strengthen the “mindfulness muscle” so that it will be more steady and reliable in the presence of strong feelings