This is the last blog in a 3 part series on Mindfulness and Addiction. This one is all about getting our hands dirty in practice when it comes to working with cravings and urges. Let me set the landscape. The late Dr. Alan Marlatt had a friend who was a surfer and also a cigarette smoker and no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t quit. Alan described this process of bringing attention to the breath while observing the physical sensations of the urge and watching them as they came and went. His friend said to him “It’s like you’re using the breath the surf the urge”. And so it was, urge surfing was born.
I had mentioned in an earlier blog that an urge is an impulse to engage in the addictive behavior and is expressed via physical sensations in the body. Cravings are thoughts or desires to engage in the behavior. An urge to engage in an addictive behavior can be seen as an ocean wave in that it starts small, gets bigger, crests, and finally subsides. The peak of an urge usually lasts somewhere between 20-30 minutes. Urge surfing teaches us to use the focus of our breath as a “surfboard” for riding the wave of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations rather than the usual approach of try and avoid the discomfort of the urge by using.
Here’s how to do it:
- Find a place where you can feel comfortable and relatively undisturbed for a few minutes.
- Think of a situation where you feel like you might be in danger of engaging in your addictive behavior. If you have a severe addiction, you may want to choose something a little less triggering (e.g., email, internet surfing, etc…). Really imagine this situation.
- Begin to observe the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that are arising. You may notice desires to engage, or feelings of excitement or anxiousness, and even stiffness or tightening in the body. Just reflect on what is coming up.
- Now begin to shift your attention and engage with your breath. Breathing in and just noticing it coming in and breathing out and just noticing it going out of the body. You can focus at the tip of the nose or the belly. If it helps you can even say “in” as you’re breathing in and “out” as you’re breathing out. Do this for at least 30 seconds.
- The next step is to shift your attention to your body now. Feel into the areas of discomfort. There is no need to think about these areas, just actually feel the sensations. If there is tension, bring your attention there and just feel into it. If there is tingling, feel that. At this point the mind may wander or crave to do something else. Or maybe you’ll notice any impulses or urges to stop doing this practice. Just acknowledge them if they arrive, let them be, and bring your attention back to sensing into the feelings. It may help to even breathe into these spaces as you are being with them. Notice if there is any shift in any of the sensations or if they stayed relatively the same. Do this for at least 1 minute.
- Now you can open your eyes and thank yourself for taking time out to approach your discomfort, instead of typically acting on your impulses or avoidance.
See if you can try some of this next time you have a craving or an urge to get on the internet or get back to that text when, in the moment, your relaxation or family might need you more.
Each time we are able to successfully use mindfulness to ride out the craving to engage in our addictive behavior – our cravings or urges become less frequent and less intense and we become stronger, more confident, and more in control of our own lives.
Finally, it is also well known that for most people, recovery is facilitated best with the support system of a community who can share struggles, triumphs, and healthy lifestyle choices together. I recommend looking up a community in your area to join around your particular addiction. Also, if you are suffering from physical or severe psychological issues, I recommend seeking support from a medical and health care professional.
As always, please share your thoughts, comments, and questions below. Your additions here provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.