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Fighting Cravings Doesn’t Work. But This Might.

When you’re trying to quit alcohol, cravings and urges can feel like mountains blocking your way. 

They overwhelm, taking on a life of their own. 

You think you’re dug in and ready to commit to sobriety, but then an urge hits. It starts as this persistent little buzz in the back of your brain. 

But then it grows. 

And when it grows, it swells, and makes a lot of noise. It feels like you will possibly explode if you don’t have a drink. In fact, you can think of nothing else. 

There is no way you can live like this – fighting so hard countless times a day. So you give in to the urge, and then the cycle repeats

Everyone who has ever quit drinking knows what those impossible urges and cravings feel like. I’ve been taken out by my fair share of them, too. 

But it doesn’t have to be like this forever. Urges, like everything in life, are temporary. They are beatable. 

And also tricky. 

So we need tools and support to navigate them. One such tool is urge surfing. 

A woman surfs a huge wave
urge surfing in sobriety

What Is Urge Surfing?

Urge surfing is a cognitive behavior technique (CBT) used to help people avoid harmful behaviors. In our case, we’re talking about drinking, but you can apply this technique to things like smoking, overeating, and compulsive shopping – any behavior you’re trying to change. 

The concept of urge surfing is rooted in mindfulness

The premise is simple (the application is another story). Whenever an urge hits, instead of fighting or feeding it, we observe it and ride it out like a surfer riding a wave. 

Here’s a quick video explainer that dives deeper into the concept.

Urges Are Tricky (And Hard to Resist)

Urge surfing, and techniques like it, exist because fighting urges simply does not work. You feed whatever you pay attention to, and thus it is with urges. 

The more you feed an urge, the stronger it gets. 

We feed urges by giving them attention, ruminating on them, justifying them, negotiating with ourselves about them, or planning to fulfill them. 

And that really sucks because we’re trying to achieve the opposite. 

An urge hits, and you immediately go on the defense. No, I’m not gonna drink. Well maybe I will drink this weekend, but definitely not today. I can do this. I just need to distract myself. Just don’t think about it. No, I’m not going to run to the liquor store (now you’re picturing yourself grabbing the keys and doing just that). 

The more you try to run away from the urge, the bigger it gets. It’s why you can’t white knuckle this stuff. 

Eventually, you’ll cave. 

It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you need another strategy. 

Why Urge Surfing Works

According to the Center for Addiction Recovery in Pregnancy & Parenting at Dartmouth, urges rarely last longer than 30 minutes. 

When you’re in the throes of an urge, 30 minutes can feel like an eternity, but the point is that it is temporary. It will pass. 

Like an ocean wave, the urge starts small and then grows and swells, sometimes to a scary size, but even the monster waves will break up and dissipate. 

Urge surfing teaches you how to be a surfer riding the wave. 

Since ruminating, worrying about, and focusing on our urge only feeds it, we need a way to ride it out. 

Every time you give into an urge and drink, you strengthen the urge. Your brain starts to form a connection. 

Bad urge → Drink → Instant dopamine hit. 

The opposite is also true. Every time you let the urge go unanswered, you weaken the behavioral response. 

Urge surfing teaches you how to let the urge go by without caving or exhausting yourself through willpower and fighting. The more you practice it, the stronger you become and the weaker your urges will be. 

The added bonus here is that your overall self-regulation skills will improve and multiple facets of your life will be positively impacted. 

How to Practice Urge Surfing

The fundamentals of urge surfing are simple enough, but this takes practice. It is not a miracle move that vanquishes urges in one shot. 

This is one of those “trust the process’ things. 

Remember, the more you do it, the stronger you’ll become. Here’s how to start. The next time an urge or cravings hits, do this:

1. Start with Mindfulness

  • Step out of the emotional intensity of the urge and back into your body by focusing on your breath. 
  • Notice your breath. Don’t try to change anything about it. Just observe it. In and out. 
  • Take on the persona of an observer. Notice your thoughts. What’s going on inside your head right now? 

A few notes here.

Your brain is going to wander back and forth between the urge and your breath. That is fine. Be gentle with yourself – like newborn baby levels of delicateness. 

The first few times I tried using mindfulness to ride out a craving was madness. 

I’d breathe in deeply, maybe get an exhale out, and then immediately wander off into panic-stricken thoughts about should I or shouldn’t I run to the bodega and grab a six pack. 

Then I’d think to myself, “Okay, this is you freaking out about wanting a cider draft, go back to the breath.” 

And I would honestly try.

Maybe I’d get to four breaths before an intrusive thought kool-aid-stomped into the forefront of my thoughts. 

It is a frustrating experience when you first start out, but I promise this little back and forth does have a purpose and is helping even if it’s mostly pissing you off at the moment. 

Breathe. Notice. Gently bring your attention back to the breath, a million times if you have to. 

That’s the first part.

The first few times I tried this method, I ended my session feeling like I’d achieved nothing. It was a total waste of time. All I did was fight with myself, trying and failing to stick to my breath. 

But it isn’t a waste, any more than doing a wobbly, modified push-up on your knees is a waste. You start where you are. Keep going. 

This video is helpful if you’d like a guided meditation. The account focuses on eating addiction, but the same concepts apply.

2. Pay Attention to the Physical Sensations in Your Body

Once you get a few deep breaths in, shift your attention from the breath to your body. As this urge grows, what’s happening in your body? 

Where do you feel it? 

Bring your attention to the part of the body where you feel the urge most intensely. For me, it was always my chest. 

Once you’ve located the strongest physical reaction to the urge, step back into the role of observer and notice what’s going on. 

Become curious about the experience. 

The CARPP at Dartmouth has a wonderful checklist for noticing your physical sensations that’ll include here:

Notice quality, position, boundaries and intensity of the sensation:

  • Does the sensation feel tight or loose?
  • Does the sensation have a temperature?
  • Where is the sensation located?
  • What are the sensation’s exact borders?
  • Are these borders well defined and firm like the edge of a football or soft and fuzzy like a cotton ball?
  • How do these qualities vary with each breath?
  • Is the feeling increasing or dissipating? A little of both?
an infographic that explains how to do a body scan
body scans and urge surfing

Instead of being terrified of the craving and what it could do to your sobriety, become weirdly interested in the shape of it. 

It might look and sound like this. 

You notice your chest starts fluttering at the thought of hightailing it over to the liquor store. As an observer of this moment, you might say to yourself, “Oh wow, my heart is really fluttering right now. It’s like a butterfly in my chest. When I breathe in, it changes a little, but if my mind wanders it flutters again. I’m noticing some sweat on my upper lip. It feels kind of cool when the breeze hits it. My throat is a little tight as well.”

You’re just naming and observing what is happening. 

Repeat this process for every part of your body that is reacting to the urge. 

Don’t fight or label anything. 

Avoid saying things like, “I’m freaking out and my heart is going to explode.” That’s unhelpful and will probably make the symptom intensify. Instead, just plainly note it like a doctor would when diagnosing a patient. 

“I am experiencing an accelerated heart rate. My chest feels tight.” 

3. Return to the Breath.

After you’ve gone through the process of observing and noticing the physical manifestations of the urge in your body, return to the breath. 

Follow it in and out. 

Repeat. 

With each cycle of breaths, observe the urge. 

How does it change? Does it get stronger? Weaker? Hazy? Sharp? Name and notice, then return to the breath. 

Visualize yourself riding the urge like a surfer rides a wave. 

Once the urge has passed (because it will), you can stop the exercise. 

an infographic that explains the concept of urge surfing
how urge surfing works – infographic

When Urge Surfing Feels Impossible…

If you feel yourself getting worked up during this process, pull back and give yourself the kind of grace you’d give a friend going through a hard time. 

There are a few things worth noting in moments when you feel like you’re going to break. 

  • All urges pass. Yours will, too. 
  • It is normal for an urge to feel unbearable. (But you can bear it.)
  • Urges are feelings, not directives. You do not have to act on them.
  • It is okay to have urges. 
  • Urges are natural reactions to habits and addictions. It is literally how we are wired
  • Discomfort is okay. 
  • Urge surfing can be extremely frustrating in the beginning. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. 

Our brains love patterns, even (sometimes especially) those that are bad for us.

Feel sad/angry/joyful → get the urge to drink → drink → feel happy (temporarily) – that is a pattern. 

Think about what happens to a toddler when they can’t have something they want. Urges can feel exactly like that – a full-on, adult-sized meltdown in your brain. 

Urge surfing is about creating new patterns and pathways, and breaking the feedback loop our brains created around drinking (or whatever bad behavior you mean to escape). 

No easy task!

It’s hard in the same way training for a 5K after being sedentary is hard. But it’s part of the process, so tell yourself to stick with it. Even if you feel like you’re terrible at it, you will see changes with consistency and practice. 

All Urges Begin With Triggers

One way to get ahead of your urges is to get a better understanding of your triggers. Triggers are the visual, physical, and emotional cues that cause an urge to form. 

Remember, our brain loves patterns. 

If every Friday at 5:00 PM, you grab your keys and head to a nearby bar with coworkers for happy hour, guess what will happen next Friday when five o-clock hits and you see your keys at your desk?

The urge.

There are all kinds of triggers that ignite cravings and urges, so a good complementary exercise is to identify your triggers and find ways to disrupt that habit loop by choosing alternative activities and behaviors. 

Have faith that this is possible! 

On this point, I like this quote from Dr. Ralph Carson in an article by Alta Mira Recovery:

“Recognizing and understanding these kinds of triggers are a key aspect of recovery. Though it may seem like a daunting task, it’s possible to train the brain to respond to them in healthier ways, says Dr. Ralph Carson, author of The Brain Fix. “The brain is very forgiving,” he writes. “Cells can in fact be replaced and the brain can be rewired.” According to Dr. Carson, any habit, regardless of how compelling the drive, can be overcome by rewiring the brain, or, in other words, by training it to use alternative neural pathways.”

If you want to dive deeper into understanding triggers and cravings, I recommend the following:

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help

Urge surfing is a powerful tool for your sobriety toolkit, but it’s one piece of a big, clunky puzzle. This is why I always recommend getting help and extra support. 

It’s one thing to bookmark a bunch of resources and try to bootstrap a personal recovery plan made possible by Dr. Google, but you’d be making it 10x harder on yourself that way. 

Connect with a support network (online or in-person) and consider 1:1 counseling with someone who can guide you through activities like this and others that are part of a tailored plan for you

You can overcome this. 

Should you want additional support, connect with us on Facebook. We’ve got an incredible private community of supportive people going through the same things. 

Whatever you choose, I’ll be rooting for your success!

If you’re struggling right now, feel stuck, or don’t know what to do next, talk therapy can help. Getting started with BetterHelp is easy!

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