Urge Surfing: A Mindful Approach to Overcoming Addictive Behaviors

urge surfing

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

Robert Frost

In mindfulness-based psychotherapy there’s a technique called “urge surfing” that’s used to help individuals overcome addictive and impulsive behaviors.

The main assumption behind the technique is that an urge never lasts forever – usually, no more than 20-30 minutes. Individuals can therefore “ride out” these urges simply by becoming more aware of their transient nature.

While reflecting on an urge, such as smoking a cigarette or eating junk food or engaging in promiscuous sex, we should first make note of all the physical and mental sensations that create that craving experience – these craving experiences will often vary depending on the person and the object of desire.

For example, you may identify a twisting sensation in your stomach whenever you crave another piece of cake. Learn how to tune into that feeling – step back and observe it – but don’t act on the impulse. Just watch your desires almost as if you are passively watching a movie.

At first, urge surfing can often make the craving become more and more intense. It’s kind of like this video of kids trying not to eat marshmallows.

Despite the kids’ temptation to eat the marshmallow right away, they try to hold out in hopes of receiving a larger reward in the future (two marshmallows). But as the experience drags on, many of the kids become more and more stressed out, and the craving continues to amplify.

This is a common occurrence for most desires. It is analogous to a wave in an ocean growing larger and larger, as the craving builds and builds.

However, like all waves, they eventually come down and dissipate too. They don’t continue to build up forever; instead, they are impermanent, and in a constant state-of-flux. They rise, but also fall.

Our desires work in the same way when urge surfing. At first, it may seem like our temptations are only getting stronger and stronger, but eventually they weaken and subside, so long as we can “ride out” the craving long enough.

This is the main mechanism which allows urge surfing to be so effective in overcoming addictive behaviors.

A Step-by-Step Guide on Urge Surfing

Here are the key steps for using “urge surfing” to help overcome your addictive behaviors:

  • Identify the craving. The sooner you become aware of the craving the easier it will be to overcome it. You don’t want to have to fight the craving when the object of desire is already in your reach. By that point, the craving may already be too strong for you to overcome.
  • Sit back and watch. The key component of urge surfing is your awareness. The goal is to sit back, watch these desires, and really become attuned to them. Don’t act, just observe – like a scientist observing something under a microscope.
  • Make a mental note of the sensations. It really helps to pinpoint what it is that creates your craving experience. This includes both physical sensations and mental sensations, including certain thought patterns that may be running through your head (“One more won’t hurt me.”), or mental imagery. Often the more aware you become of your craving experience, the more you understand the anatomy of your desires.
  • Be aware of environmental triggers. Often times our addictive behaviors are influenced by certain triggers in our environment. For example, hanging around at a bar makes it harder to resist the temptation to drink alcohol than if you were hanging out at a cafe instead. In the same way, associating with certain people may make you more likely to engage in an addictive behavior than if you chose a different group of friends to associate with. Being mindful of these environmental triggers can be an important part of urge surfing and better understanding your addiction. Learn to avoid these triggers in the future and you’ll have an easier time overcoming these negative habits.
  • Keep in mind the lesson of “impermanence.” The takeaway lesson of urge surfing is that all of our thoughts and feelings are impermanent, including our desires. By showing a little patience, and remembering the inherent “transient nature” of our desires, we can remind ourselves that it is possible to ride out these cravings until they inevitably pass.
  • Use a helpful mantra. If you want, you can also accommodate your urge surfing with a helpful mantra. Repeating an affirmation such as, “this too shall pass” or “I can ride out this desire” will help replace unhelpful thoughts with a more stable state of mind.
  • Keep practicing. Like most of the techniques and tools I share on this site, “urge surfing” is something that you will get better at the more you practice. Don’t expect to try this one time and be free from your addictive habits. It’s more likely this will take a few trials and errors before you begin getting good at it.

I hope this short guide helps you in overcoming addictive behaviors in the future.

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