Urge Surfing – Relapse Prevention (Alan Marlatt)
Urge surfing is a term coined by Alan Marlatt as part of a program of relapse prevention he developed for people recovering from addictions to alcohol and other drugs. It can actually be used to help with any addictive behaviour such as gambling, overeating, inappropriate sex or any other destructive impulses.
Urges for substance use rarely last for very long. In fact, they almost never last for longer than about 30 minutes, if there is no opportunity to use. People admitted to a high quality detoxification centre where there
is no access to their drug of choice often find it remarkable how little craving they get.
If there is no opportunity to use then there is no internal struggle. It is this internal struggle that feeds the cravings. Trying to fight cravings is like trying to block a waterfall. We end up being inundated. With the
approach of mindfulness, we step aside and watch the water (cravings, impulses & urges) just go right past.
This is true for everybody, but few addicts ever give themselves the chance to prove it.
Exercise: Reflecting on Urges
Ask yourself whether there have been times when you could not give in to an urge when it presented. Did the urge pass?
Most of us will have had past experiences of urges passing. This is an important strategy to identify, as it can greatly improve self efficacy for riding out urges. The main message is that urges do not have to be
Exercise: Experiencing the Changing Nature & Impermanence of Urges
– Sit with back unsupported in a chair or on a cushion on the floor
– Start Mindfulness Meditation
-Wait for any sense of discomfort e.g. Restlessness, an itch
– Note the desire to move and resist it
– Notice thoughts that arise
– These thoughts are just thoughts. So gently 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,
e.g. Your shopping list, a fight with you partner, a football game, planning a holiday
– These are still just thoughts. Gently bring your attention back to your breath and body sensations. They are probably different again.
You have just observed the changing nature and impermanence of urges.
When you notice the physical sensations with interest, you are directly facing the urges rather than feeding them through fighting them.
How fighting urges feeds them.
Often people try to eliminate the urges by distraction or talking themselves out of them. This usually just feeds the urges and creates the illusion that they are interminable until you give in to them.
How do You Surf the Urge?
There are variations of this technique, but the main component is practicing awareness. The following steps can serve as a guide.
Before the compulsion to binge occurs, remind yourself that urges never last forever.
They are not permanent.
They come and go.
You know this because they came before.
Maybe at random times. Perhaps your urges are triggered by certain events or emotional states that you have already identified.
Just be ready for it and accept that they will come again.
Also, please make sure to nourish your body. When you intentionally starve yourself or restrict eating, you are setting yourself up for a binge later on.
2. When the Urge Hits
When you feel the urge to binge sneak up on you, focus on your breath.
Tell yourself you will simply notice the desire to comfort yourself with food. Avoid becoming stressed out or upset that you have this urge.
Don’t judge yourself.
Simply acknowledge that you are having an urge and remind yourself that this is just a thought, and you don’t have to interact with it. Just like you may feel the urge sometimes to call in sick when you don’t feel like going to work. But still, you go. Usually.
You already know that you don’t have to act on your impulses. And guess what? With binge eating, it is the same.
3. Ride the wave
Once you feel the urge, take a deep breath, and do a body scan.
Notice how the feeling is different from hunger. Observe your physical and mental reactions. Do you get anxious? Does your chest tighten? Do you feel a tingling in your hands? For example, I get very agitated and bite my lips when an urge starts.
Check your inner dialogue.
What thoughts are running through your head? Are you talking down on yourself because you experience this urge?
Then bring your attention to your breath.
Don’t try to change the rhythm, simply notice the sensation. Feel the air going in and out of your nostrils. Does your chest rise?
Repeating a mantra can also be helpful. “This too shall pass” is a good one that I use often. You can also simply use “breathe in, breathe out.”
Wondering how long you have to ride it out?
The general consensus is that an urge peaks between 20–30 minutes.
If you let it.
Try not to fight it or distract yourself from it.
Simply allow it to be there.