I have previously written a few blog posts about mindfulness and eating, for instance Mindfulness and (binge) eating, A more personal post…, Mindfulness and body positivity, Mindful eating: Lessons from Buddhism, and Eating mindfully or dieting?.
Most of these blog posts are related to binge eating, which is something that I have personally struggled with on and off for the last few years. While the recovery from an eating disorder is truly a one-of-a-kind journey, filled with varied and personal obstacles, mindfulness may be a huge stepping-stone towards that journey for all of us, regardless of what eating-related concerns we are living with.
For today’s topic, I want to discuss the concept of urge surfing. Urge surfing is a technique attributed to the late psychologist Alan Marlatt, a pioneer in the field of addiction treatment. Urge surfing is not specific to eating disorders, and has been widely applied to treat various addictions, such as eating, drinking, smoking, drug use, gambling, sex, and many others. But what is urge surfing and how does it relate to mindfulness?
WHAT IS URGE SURFING?
Urge surfing is a technique for overcoming urges that are often associated with habits, cravings, impulses, or addictions. For individuals living with binge eating disorder, this can be an urge to binge; for a smoker, this can be an urge to smoke; for an individual addicted to alcohol, this can be a strong impulse to drink; for an individual addicted to gambling, this can be a constant desire to gamble. But habits and cravings occur outside of addictions as well. Every one of us has at some point succumbed to a habit, a craving or an impulse. We may strongly crave chocolate or other treats when we are sad; we may crave a glass of wine when we are stressed; we may eat out of habit and boredom, rather than out of actual hunger; and we may buy something that we do not need on impulse.
While some habits can be harmless, all habits are extremely difficult to break. Once an activity becomes a habit, and potentially harmful to our mental or physical health, it may only then occur to us that we want to break it. But the way we tend to go about trying to break habits is problematic. Several studies have shown that fighting an urge to do something only makes the urge stronger and stronger until we eventually give in to it. Consider this, if you tell an individual addicted to drugs not to think about a drug, they will only want it more. In fact, wanting something that we cannot have, or something that we think we should not want, only makes our urges stronger. So we cannot fight the urge and we cannot give into it. Ignoring the urge (and I speak from personal experience here) is not an option. But if we cannot fight it, and we do not want to surrender to it, what can we do instead?
Urge surfing teaches us that we do not have to fight it, nor do we have to give into it. We can simply observe it with mindful awareness. In fact, mindfulness could be just the wake-up call we need to get us out of our habitual ways. While urge surfing is usually linked to binge eating, the same technique can apply for urges to purge, restrict, skip meals, or engage in any other aspect of disordered eating. The important thing to remember is that an urge to binge is in no way the same thing as hunger or even a craving for a certain type of food. An urge to binge and a need to eat are vastly contrasting concepts. It is important that you fuel your body to remain healthy. Mindfulness teaches us to listen to our body, respond appropriately to hunger cues, and repair our relationship with food.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
When an urge occurs, the following steps could help you overcome it. Some professionals suggest sitting down in a quiet and comfortable environment for this technique, but I think that what is so great about it is that it can be used anywhere you happen to find yourself when an urge occurs.
- Urges typically last for 20-30 minutes, but can actually strengthen and last longer the more we fight them. On the other hand, noticing the urge and simply letting it be can make it subside faster. So even before an urge occurs, remember that urges come and go. Remember that urges are not permanent. Remember that they can come at any time, because they have come at random times in the past. If you have successfully overcome an urge before, remember that you managed to overcome it (the how is less important). Just be ready for it. And ensure that you have nourished your body throughout the day so that the urge is not simply your body’s cry for food.
- When an urge does occur, simply notice it. This sounds more difficult than it is, but in reality, we cannot not notice an urge. Usually, we start fighting it and trying to resist it straight away. This time, however, just observe it. Apply your mindfulness techniques of non-judgment and non-reactivity. Don’t judge the urge as bad or good. Don’t react to it by becoming upset or stressed out that you are experiencing this urge. Simply notice it with mindful attention. Notice where it occurs in your body. Notice how this urge differs from hunger and specific cravings. Explore the sensations it brings with a detached and relaxed mind.
- Shortly after an urge occurs, notice your first instinct to fight or resist it. Imagine your urge as a wave, and picture yourself sitting on the shore overlooking these waves. Fighting the waves is fruitless; you will probably end up drowning. Surrendering to the waves is equally fruitless; you will end up drowning. Some people use the analogy of surfing or riding the wave as a way of overcoming urges. I prefer the analogy of completely taking yourself outside of these urges by staying safe on the beach. This can remind you that these thoughts and urges are not who you are. They are just thoughts. And you don’t have to interact with them at all; much like you (probably) wouldn’t step into a turbulent ocean. Simply acknowledge that you are having an urge and allow it to be there without getting caught up in your thoughts about it.
- After you have explored where the sensations of the urge (and of the urge to fight the urge) occur in your body, try to bring your attention back to your breath. Notice the urges and then let them go. Notice the sensations in your body and then let them go. Bring your mind back to the present moment by staying with your breath. Do not try to change your breath in any way, simply let the breath breathe. By not giving in to your urge, you realise more and more that your thoughts cannot control you if you do not let them.
- Each time you successfully ride out an urge, it becomes easier and easier to do so next time. Each time you listen to your body, and nourish your body, you take one step closer to rebuilding your relationship with food. Habits are not built nor broken over night, but breaking a habit once teaches your brain that it is possible, and this weakens the habit significantly. And bringing mindfulness and meditation practice into your everyday life helps you ride the waves of your urges when they do arise, and to overcome them by simply letting them be.
Some great articles about urge surfing: