Ride Out Your Urges to Use

By Michael Clement

Some of the beautiful things I love most about surfing is making the most of the moment, living in the moment, and embracing the experience. Riding a wave is something that is very special to those that practice the art of surfing.  It is an experience that takes time to master. That pleasurable experience is carved deep in the brain’s pleasure center, serving up a need to get in the water regularly to satisfy this hunger. I have had times in my life where I have had to ride out the urge to drop everything and get in the water to quench my surf-starved self due to having other responsibilities at the time.

To those of us who suffer from the disease of addiction, those pleasurable experiences connected to our use are carved deep in the brain as well making it very difficult to ride out those urges to return to our drinking or drug use. There have been many times over the years in my recovery where I have felt strong urges to satisfy that need to feed the addiction, primarily in early recovery. One of the techniques I was introduced to that really helped was urge surfing. Much like the short but exhilarating ride on a wave, urges to use chemicals pass quickly. Much like the wave itself, urges arrive on the conscious, peak, roll by and subside. Imagined urges to use drugs or alcohol may arrive small on the shore of the brain, increase in size, brake and dissolve.

Urge surfing is a useful technique to help aide those recovering from any addiction, whether process addictions or chemical addictions. Urges come and go and don’t last long if there isn’t a way to feed them, say like if one was in detox or treatment, those urges could be less. This is due to the lack of internal struggle, this internal battle is what feeds the cravings. Trying to battle these cravings is like paddling against a rip current, we end up tired and overwhelmed. Fighting urges tend to make them worse, since what we focus on increases its intensity. It’s when we relax, allow the water to work with us that we can move aside from the current (cravings/urges to use chemicals) and enjoy the beauty of the ocean.

Most of us humans have had times where we have had strong urges to fulfill instincts like go to the restroom, or scratch an itch, but didn’t. We have allowed the urges to pass. It’s important to remember these experiences because it can aide us in being able to urge surf. Mindfulness helps us by not feeding the thoughts, feelings or urges, and by making them less important. We experience them for what they are, don’t repress them, and ride them out for however long they last. They will arrive, peak, break and pass, sometimes coming back, much like the waves in the ocean comes in sets. The more we allow the waves to come as we practice urge surfing, the more their intensity lessens. The more we fight them, the more we feed the intensity. Over time, the urges may still come but in less intensity, eventually dissipating all together.

So how do we do this? First thing is to practice mindfulness, breathing naturally without changing it, watching the breath. Notice what thoughts are there. Don’t judge or fight the thoughts. Gently bring the attention back to the breath. How is the craving or urge affecting the body? Take note of this: the position of it, the intensity of the urge. How does it change as you breathe out or in? Repeat this process with each body part involved. Be curious about the changes and what is happening over time. The key is to experience the sensations of the waves and use them as confidence builders to replace the fears that the urges cannot be endured. Again, the thoughts, urges and cravings will arrive, peak, break and pass, becoming more manageable over time, eventually dissipating altogether. Using the visualization of a wave can help endure these difficult triggers, thus building confidence in recovery.

One of the main things to remember is that cravings, thoughts, or urges are more intense in early recovery, but will eventually go away. Knowing that they lessen over time will help us to continue practicing urge surfing and experience the relief this practice brings. Repetition is the mother of success. We get better at things we do on a regular basis, mindfulness being no exception.

Happy Surfing,
Michael Clement
Attributed to Dr. C. Walsh