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Addiction, Triggers, Urges and Using Mindfulness and Urge Surfing

addiction, Triggers, Urges, and Cravings - How Using Mindfulness and Urge Surfing Can Help Now!

By Elisha Goldstein

Whether our addictions have to do with alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling, emailing, or shopping, the addictive behavior is often preceded by some triggering event that sets off a flurry of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations, leading to cravings and urges to engage in the addictive behavior.

An important part of recovery is being able to recognize our triggers and how cravings and urges manifest in our bodies and minds.

The practice of Mindfulness gives us a unique tool to slow time down and bring awareness to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations associated with the triggering event while it is occurring.

As soon as we bring awareness to the moment, we have stepped out of auto-pilot, giving the choice over our behavior back to us and in turn giving us the ability to gain back control of our behaviors and our lives.

Often, cravings and urges are our longing for things to be different than the way they are in the moment. Dr. Alan Marlatt, the Director of the Addictive Behavior Research Center at the University of Washington, defines a craving as the desire to experience the effects of engaging in the addictive behavior, while an urge is a relatively sudden impulse to engage in an act such as drinking, shopping, or gambling - feeling the high.

Urges and cravings often feel like they strike without warning, but with a mindful lens, we can develop a sensitivity to the internal and external cues and an openness to the present-moment experience that counteracts our addictive behaviors.

Dr. Marlatt proposes a few ways urges and cravings can be triggered.

The first is through a lack of insight into the body-feeling state such as sadness, anxiety, or guilt that manifest as physical sensations in the body.

The second is through defensive and distorted styles of thinking, such as denial, rumination, or catastrophizing.

The third is through our automatic negative interpretations of events such as attributing a relapse to personal weakness. In practicing mindfulness, we are not trying to get rid of or avoid these difficult experiences, but instead instill an openness and curiosity about them, learning how to acknowledge them and relate to them differently, breaking the cycle of relapse.

Take a moment right now to bring awareness to how your emotions, distorted thought styles, and automatic interpretations of events, can feed into cravings and urges.

In terms of emotions, a growing amount of research is pointing to an unquestionable connection between negative emotions and relapse. The internationally acclaimed Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks to the importance of being aware of our difficult emotions and even approaching them with compassion rather than suppressing them.

It is the natural course of emotions to come and go as it is for thoughts, physical sensations, and just about everything else.

Think about if you have ever felt the emotion of sadness or joy. Did the feeling eventually pass? However, with uncomfortable emotions we often try to ignore or avoid them. It is in this struggling and avoidance where we find our greatest suffering and in turn, our greatest triggers, cravings, and urges.

Mindfulness gives us the ability to become aware of our emotions and as soon as this happens, we move from auto-pilot to the present-moment and regain the ability to be in control.

As we do this, we increase our awareness of the impermanence of emotions, reduce cravings and urges, and become less fearful and more confident that we can do it again the next time without resorting to addictive behavior.So what do we do, how can mindfulness help?

In concert with the fundamental principle of impermanence found in mindfulness literature, Dr. Marlatt developed a technique called "urge surfing" which uses mindfulness and breath-focused meditation to help us ride out the urge.

An urge to engage in an addictive behavior can be seen as an ocean wave in that it starts small, gets bigger, crests, and finally subsides.

Urge surfing teaches us to use the focus of our breath as a "surfboard" for riding the wave of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations rather than struggling or giving in to it. Although ideally it is best to be guided through this, here are a few steps you can try to get started:

  • First do a brief practice where you sit, stand, or lie down and notice your breath coming in and out of your body. You can think of it as keeping your breath company. This is good initial practice so when an urge comes you'll be more likely to remember to do this.
  • As you have the urge, you can bring awareness to the breath and let it surf the wave of the sensations associated with the urge. Noticing the physical sensation of the impulse as it changes and intensifies in the body. You may notice sweating, salivating, tightening of the muscles, or constriction of the chest.
  • Be aware of any thoughts that arise in the mind and also be aware how they come and go as well.
  • Many people can testify to the idea that an intense urge only lasts about 20-30 minutes, so notice the urge as it eventually falls like a wave in the ocean.

As I mentioned earlier, it helps to be guided by a live person or a CD, but this is a good start.

May you be well, may you be at peace, may you be healthy, may you be free from suffering!

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Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a pioneer in the integration of mindfulness meditative techniques into the clinical therapeutic setting. He holds a private practice is West Los Angeles, is a public speaker, and a Consultant to Aliveworld. He is author of the audio CD "Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression", co-author of the CD "Mindful Solutions for Addiction and Relapse Prevention" ( http://drsgoldstein.com/CDs.aspx), co-author of the upcoming workbook Mindfulness Stress Reduction and co-author of the multimedia Guide and Community Mindfulness, Anxiety, and Stress found in Aliveworld ( http://www.aliveworld.com) He also teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

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[Photo from article: Buddhist Meditation Helps People Stop Drinking]