Don’t Scratch That Itch-”Surf the Urge” Instead

Last Monday I talked about spending 15 mindful minutes daily to reduce stress and improve health. Today’s strategy is called “urge surfing.” Developed by Alan Marlatt to help alcoholics resist the “urge” to drink, it works equally well with compulsive behaviors like eating, shopping, excessive TV and gambling. Likewise, it’s a great way to curb compulsive “thoughts.”

As with other mindfulness techniques, the underlying idea is that experience is fluid and that positive and negative feelings, thoughts and urges come and go. Emotional suffering occurs because we worry that if we don’t give in to the urge to take a drink, binge eat or spend too much time online, we’ll bring on an uncomfortable feeling that we won’t be able to tolerate. For example, I tend to stress eat when I’m nervous, worried or mildly sad rather than experience these feelings directly. Or I might obsess over what a friend said to me rather than feel the hurt or anger.

The goal of “urge surfing” is to endure the discomfort of the feeling, thought or urge, without scratching it. For me and my eating, it’s learning to sit mindfully with the feelings that come up when I don’t stress eat and watch their ebb and flow, like waves on the ocean. Sometimes, the feelings may be very strong and uncomfortable; other times they are weaker and less compelling. But the truth about life is that nothing bad or good lasts forever. By learning to be the “observer” of our experience, we are less attached to the ever changing peaks and valleys of our feelings, thoughts and urges.

This week, experiment with “urge surfing” by choosing a compulsive behavior or recurring thought and not giving into it. Some examples are: stress eating, nail biting, dwelling on your to-do list, drinking, and always being plugged in to phones or notepads. Be creative and choose some behavior or thought that speaks to you. Then spend 15 minutes not pursuing it and “surfing” the feelings that arise. Watch them come and go with acceptance and non-judgement.

Cowabunga!

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