Surfing the Urge!



We have all experienced craving and urges to some extent. Whether it’s feeling that urge to reach for the chocolate, or cigarette. What many people don’t realise is that the feelings experienced in both examples are very similar.

Have you ever noticed that when you know that you don’t have access to the subject of your craving, it disappears relatively quickly? Such urges rarely last any longer than 30 minutes.

An American psychologist named Alan Marlatt coined the term ‘Urge Surfing’ as a way of preventing relapse in people recovering from substance abuse. However, many therapists have adopted this technique as an effective mindfullnes exercise in helping people with other compulsive behaviours, such as overeating, smoking etc.

When it is impossible to give in to the urge as, maybe there is no chocolate around or cigarettes, then there is no internal struggle. It is this internal struggle between the urge and your decision to give up that behaviour that feeds the urge. The more you focus on it, the more you want it.

The Russian writer Tolstoy once asked his brother to not think about a white bear. He couldn’t. My own brother did the same with me when I was little, asking me not to think about an orange. “Don’t think of an orange. Don’t think of the orange.” What was the result? The only thing I could think about, no matter how hard I tried to distract myself, was the orange. No surprise.

Sometimes distracting yourself from the urges can feed them.

Does that mean that all our best efforts are futile?


The technique of ‘Urge Surfing’ allows us to step aside and simply allow the urges to be there, without judgement. ‘Urge Surfing’ allows these feelings to simply be less important, by acknowledging but not feeding them.

Eventually, the urge passes. Over time the frequency of these urges gets less and they become less intense. The odd slip may increase the urges again, but they too pass.

Just having the knowledge that the urge will pass can be enough to provide you with the strength to surf through it. So remember, urges to ebb and flow, and surfing the flow can get you through.

In addition to ‘Urge Surfing’ you can project yourself ahead, and begin to imagine how you will feel after the urge has passed. This can help the urge to pass quicker as the more you focus on those positive feelings the more you can actually begin to experience them.

If the urges stay with you for longer than 30 minutes then you can begin to understand what triggers them. Is it physical? (Exhaustion, illness etc.) Or emotional? (Depression, anger etc.)

The ‘Urge Surfing’ process might sound really easy and actually quite sensible, but it can take practice. Especially if you are new to the mindfulness meditation. Below is a description of the ‘Urge Surfing’ Mindfulness technique. What to do and how to do it. Why not give it a go? 


‘Urge Surfing’ Exercise

Sit upright in a chair, without leaning back.

Focus on your breath. Don’t try to alter it. Simply let the breath do its thing.

Begin to notice your thoughts. Without judging them, or feeding them, or fighting them. 

Gently bring your awareness back to your breath.

Notice your craving experience as it affects your body.

Focus on one area of your body where you can feel the physical sensations associated with the urge.

What’s happening?

-Notice the quality of sensation, position, boundaries and intensity. 

-How does this change with your breath?

Repeat this focusing process with each part of your body that is involved in the urge, in turn.

What’s happening?

Notice how it changes over time.

The aim is to replace any feelings of anxiety towards the craving, with an interest as to what is happening physically in your body. When you do this you can notice the cravings change. Ebbing and flowing, just like waves. By doing this they can become more manageable.




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