Miniskills Monday: Urge Surfing

Levelling Up and Productivity, Resources

This is a series I’m starting, primarily for my own benefit – where I commit to researching, applying and exploring one mindfulness/mental health skill in depth that week. Or heck, maybe I’ll look into other skills in the future. How exciting.

Anyway, today’s entry is on a technique called Urge Surfing. This is a mindfulness skill pioneered by the psychologist Alan Marlatt, who worked extensively in addictions – however, I learned about it from the book The Happiness Trap. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been lax at applying this one recently.

Why is Urge Surfing useful?

US is a great skill to answer the question of what you’re actually meant to do instead of compulsions, or when your Rat Brain goes a bit crazy trying to jump back on the wheel. Under Marlatt’s view, any urge, compulsion or addiction can be thought of primarily as physical sensations in the body. They are akin to a wave in the way they peak, crash and eventually, subside altogether.

Instead of trying to distract yourself, do something or argue with yourself to make a thought or feeling go away, you tune in to the urge. You embrace it.

The urge may not go away, and indeed will probably reappear quite a few times. But this way you aren’t giving in to the craving or the compulsion, and eventually the intensity will lessen over time.

How to Urge Surf:

  1. Bring to mind of an urge or compulsion you want to engage in right now. It doesn’t have to be a big or overwhelming one – perhaps simply an urge to eat a piece of chocolate right now. Just because.
  2. Tune in with your body, and notice where you actually experience the urge. Your stomach? Your back? Your jaw? Find the place where you notice it the most. The location might not be the most obvious.
  3. Focus on that physical sensation in particular; examine it. What does it feel like? A pressure? An itch? A restlessness? Can you pinpoint where it is? Does it have a colour, a smell, a defined shape? Could you draw an outline around it? Does it ebb or flow, or is it constant?
  4. Notice whatever comes up. Whatever thought, feeling emerges, take note of it (non-judgmentally).
  5. Use this focus on the physical sensations to help you ride the urge. Within time, the urge will probably start to weaken. However,
  6. If the urge starts to become overwhelming, then return your attention to your breath for a few moments. When you can, return to the sensations.

My mindful goal for this week:

My issue is always setting too many goals at once and setting myself up to fail. So for this week I’m just going to practise noticing a single urge: the urge to use my phone.

The interesting thing about this urge is that I will eventually need to engage in this action. For example, I don’t want to check my phone right now but I will need to read my messages or email at some point. That’s okay. But with this situation, I hope to engage in my values to help me.

I might have the urge, but right now I value the work I’m doing more. As such, I won’t check my phone until X time. Importantly, I need to stick to the time I decide on so that I’m not then just delaying an urge to engage in later, but making decisions based on what I want.

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