Urge Surfing: A Technique for Relapse Prevention
Urge surfing is the combination of mindfulness, or non-judgmental observation, and an attitude of curiosity. It allows people to ride the wave of addictive urges until the urge loses energy.
It was developed by Alan Marlatt who realized that our internal struggle against an addictive craving only feeds it, making it stronger.
We typically try to talk or think ourselves out of our urges, or we use distraction to take our mind off them. Thinking urges away is comparable to standing in shallow ocean water and holding our arms out to keep the waves from crashing to the shore; and though distraction can be helpful, it does not always keep us from getting washed out to sea by our cravings.
The Difficulty with Thought Suppression
In the 1980s, research on thought suppression illustrated how fighting thoughts or sensations only serves to strengthen them. In one study, a group of people watched a movie about white bears. Afterward, they were divided into two groups. Each group was given the same sorting task to accomplish, one that required concentration.
- One of the groups was told to suppress or not think about white bears.
- The other group received no instruction about white bears.
- People in both groups were told to strike a counter button whenever the thought of white bears came to mind while they were sorting.
As you might suspect, the group that was asked to not think about white bears hit their counter button at a significantly higher rate than those in the other group.
Urge Surfing: The Basics
Mindfulness is being attentive to what is happening in the present moment. We can be attentive to tasks we are working on, our environment, the thoughts or feelings we are experiencing. We can also be attentive to our cravings and the discomfort that attends them.
Urges can be likened to ocean waves. They start small, grow in size, and eventually diminish and dissolve. The way to urge surf is to notice the thoughts and feelings connected with our craving, and how they change as we ride the urge’s wave.
- Notice your thoughts without fighting them or judging them.
- Notice how your craving affects your body, where you feel any sensations or discomfort.
- Notice the intensity of the feelings and their quality.
- As you breathe, notice how the intensity and quality of the sensations change.
The key to urge surfing is “replacing the fearful wish that craving will go away with interest in our experience.” By doing this we can notice that cravings come and go as do waves, and this makes them more manageable.
If you are familiar with mindfulness or practice mindfulness meditation, urge surfing will not be difficult for you to begin practicing. For those new to the practice of mindfulness, it is a technique anyone can learn by taking a class, in counseling, via resources on the Internet, or through books.
Sources: Mindfulness.org.au and [Wegner D.M., Schneider D.J., Carter S.R. & White T.L. (1987) Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53, 5-13]