Your Say Yes to Life Monday Motivator: Resisting the Urge to Surf

Surf? You probably saw the title to this week’s Monday Motivator and thought, “What does surfing have to do with a blog about recovery, health, and wellness?”

Not much, if we are talking about the kind of surfing that comes with an oblong flat board, sleek black wetsuit, and a bank of high, toasty waves.

But when it comes to facilitating a continuity of wellness that exhibits consistent restraint in the face of compulsive, urge-like addictive tendencies, we can learn a lot from surfing.

“Urge surfing” is a term coined by Alan Marlatt, director of the University of Washington’s Addictive Behaviors Research Center. The technique was developed by Marlatt to combat the “abstinence-violation effect,” or the feeling of internal powerlessness we get after we have transgressed against our self-imposed health or wellness standards. Once we have crossed that internal line over into following our urges instead of exhibiting restraint, Marlatt explains, we may feel an intense discouragement and reason that our course is already set, so we might as well continue down the damage path rather than correcting our course.

This, as you might imagine, not only feels awful, but has fairly unpleasant effects upon our lives and in our relationships.

In Marlatt’s many years of experience as one of the leading authorities on preventing relapse, how we relate to our lapses is the primary contributing factor as to whether we will engage in further urge-type behaviors.

To combat the downward spiral that the abstinence-violation effect induces, Marlatt suggests a healthy and consistent application of “urge surfing.”  Urge surfing refers to an effective relapse prevention technique we can use to “ride out” the relatively brief span of time in which our urges feel powerful enough to potentially overtake us.

Urges, Marlatt explains, are like waves. They roll in, and then they roll out again. Most urges arise and subside within a thirty minute time period. So if we learn how to “ride out” the urge without resisting, judging, or otherwise jumping on the urge bandwagon, it will eventually subside naturally with no undue ill effects.

When practicing urge surfing, Marlatt teaches, we do not fight with our urges. Fighting with our urges gives them additional power and potency in our awareness, which just makes it that much harder for us to resist them.

So instead, we just observe them, like a surfer would observe a wave that he or she did not want to catch. Eventually, the wave would unfurl itself completely and dissolve back into the ocean, leaving us with calm seas in its wake.

So the next time you feel the temptation to engage with urge-related thoughts that have the potential to lead to relapse behaviors, follow these simple steps to try urge surfing instead:

  1. Simply observe the urge as it arises. Tell yourself, “There is no harm or judgment in acknowledging that I am feeling an urge. It is just a wave. I will watch but not act.”
  2. Pay attention to your breath as an aid to keeping a big-picture perspective. This helps you avoid the tendency to develop “urge tunnel vision,” which focuses your awareness so intensely on the urge that it begins to feel unstoppable and overwhelming.
  3. Notice the types of thoughts you are having around the urge…for instance, “Wow I sure would love to (fill-in-the-blank) right now. Boy that would feel/taste/etc good. Hmmm. Yes. I sure wish I could do/say/experience (fill-in-the-blank)right now. Yup. Very interesting.” Keep observing and notice how your own experience of having the urge shifts and changes in intensity, focus, and duration as the wave continues to roll in and then right by you.
  4. Instead of fearing the sensation of the urge and of the consequences should you choose to follow it, maintain an objective, scientific, “research” mindset. Study the urge as if you were a scientist noting down observations so you could write up a report about it later. If it helps, pretend it is not your urge, but someone else’s urge that you are documenting.
  5. As the urge subsides, be prepared to journal about your findings. Note especially how the craving eventually subsided and how the experience of watching and observing the urge was different from the experience of fighting with, resisting, or attempting to ignore the presence of the urge.
  6. Be sure to congratulate and celebrate yourself for trying on a new approach to your urges!

Urge surfing is a powerful, empirically-supported relapse prevention technique that has helped many individuals change their relationship with their urges to smoke, binge eat, use substances, drink, and other self-damaging, unhealthy behaviors. Marlatt encourages first time urge surfing practitioners to remember that learning any new skill is like learning to ride a bicycle – we are bound to fall off a few times as we learn. But as we continue to persevere, the skill feels more natural and innate, and slowly but surely urge surfing becomes part of our repertoire of trusted tools we can use to reclaim the health and balance in our daily lives.

If you are struggling to relate in healthy and life-affirming ways to the presence of your urges, Southlake Counseling can help. Our compassionate, skilled professional staff is well-versed in Mindfulness techniques like urge surfing. We know what it feels like to confront a significant life challenge such as relapse in a recovery or health program, and we have supported many individuals to make lasting positive changes in their relationship with their bodies, minds, relationships, and environments. Contact us today to learn more about how urge surfing and Mindfulness can be an aid and a support to you in saying “no” to urges and “yes” to wellness and balance in 2011 and beyond!

Be Well,

Kimberly


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