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Urge Surfing: How to Break Bad Habits with Mindfulness

In a previous article, we learned that reducing exposure to cues can be a powerful way to cut off bad habits at the source. And that’s indeed a powerful strategy for handling any kind of external triggers like people, places, and things in your surroundings.

But what if the cue is internal? What if your trigger is a thought, feeling, or impulse that’s taking place inside your mind?

Those kinds of cues arise spontaneously, so you can’t remove them proactively. And to make matters worse, any attempt to suppress them only makes them stronger.

An Intrusive White Bear

If I, for example, ask you not to think about a white bear, you can be sure the bear pops into your mind anyway. And the more you try not to think about it, the more intrusive the bear will become in your mind.

Psychologists call this phenomenon ironic process theory1, and it shows that suppression is not only ineffective but actually counterproductive.

So, if it’s not a good idea to suppress unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and impulses, how should you deal with them? The answer, in short, is that you should do the exact opposite. Instead of trying to stop these triggers, you should welcome them.

Confront the Cues

A study2 by research scientist Sarah Bowen illustrates the power of this approach. She invited a group of participants who wanted to quit smoking and asked them to bring an opened pack of their favorite cigarettes.

As the experiment began, Bowen placed the smokers around a table and gave them some rather torturous instructions. Step by step, the smokers had to look at their cigarette pack, remove the cellophane, open the pack, smell it, pull out a cigarette, hold it, taste it, and take out their lighter and hold it close to the cigarette without lighting it. At each step, Bowen forced the participants to stop and wait for several minutes.

The purpose of the experiment wasn’t to torment the participants but to investigate if mindfulness can help smokers resist cravings. Before the test, half of the smokers had learned a mindfulness technique called…

Urge Surfing

Bowen explained to the participants that urges always pass, whether or not you act on them. So, when they felt a strong craving, they should imagine it as a wave in the ocean. At first it builds up, but then it inevitably crashes and dissolves.

Urge surfing3 is a technique where you picture yourself riding the wave. Instead of resisting or giving in to the craving, you pay close attention to it. What thoughts are going through your mind? What feelings are passing through your body?

When the participants left Bowen’s torture chamber after 90 minutes, she didn’t ask them to change their smoking habits or encourage them to use the technique they’d learned. She did however ask them to report back how much they’d smoked, their daily mood and cravings for the following week.

By the seventh day after the experiment, the participants who had not learned to surf the urge showed no change while the smokers who learned the technique had cut back by an impressive 37%.

Catch the Wave

While you can’t get rid of unwanted internal cues, you can choose your response to them. Urge surfing is a very helpful technique to do that. The more you practice it, the better you’ll get at catching urges as they appear, and the less you’ll get swept away by them.

Surf’s up! 🏄

Footnotes

  1. Ironic Process Theory
  2. Surfing the Urge: Brief Mindfulness-Based Intervention for College Student Smokers
  3. Urge Surfing – Mindfulness and Addiction