By Jessica Allen
Cravings are strong emotional and sometimes physical reactions to abstaining from something you really want (whether it’s good for you or not!). You can pretty much have a craving for anything, from drugs to porn, sugar, and shopping, and even to people (hey, toxic relationship we keep going back to, I see you). As humans we are hardwired to seek out pleasure and avoid pain, therefore the things we crave are usually things that bring us pleasure. The down side to this is that often what brings pleasure in the short term like drug use, or overeating, can have longer term health consequences, and mental health consequences as they are often used to numb painful feelings. Indulging in our cravings might feel good in the moment, but it’s not going to help us to deal with our problems and may even be damaging. When dealing with cravings you have probably been told before to ‘just not think about it’.
Unfortunately, avoidant techniques like this just don’t work because once we know what we are meant to avoid it's already in our head. This is known as The Pink Elephant Paradox; the more you try to suppress a thought or feeling, the stronger it will get. E.g. don’t think of a pink elephant…what are you thinking about?! Enter: Urge Surfing.
Urge surfing is a mindfulness technique originally designed to help people manage drug related cravings but can be used to manage any type of craving. Imagine your cravings as waves; big, powerful, and impossible to stop. Urge surfing can teach you to ride the wave instead of fighting it. Cravings are temporary and will eventually subside, just like a wave grows, crashes, and eventually flattens out. Urge surfing is a form of mindfulness as it requires you to be present and accept how you feel. This can be really uncomfortable at first as most of us spend a lot of the time trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings and situations.
How to practice urge surfing
Step 1: Notice
When you notice the craving coming on take a moment to pause. Remind yourself you don’t have to avoid or run away from this feeling even though it's unpleasant. Get comfy and settle into this practice.
Step 2: Breathe
Take three deep breathes. On the inhale allow the air to expand your chest and tummy. On the exhale feel your tummy and chest flatten. Relax your jaw. Relax your shoulders.
Step 3: Tune in
Tune into your body. What can you feel, hear, smell? Observe the thoughts you are having. What does the craving feel like? Where do you notice it in your body? If you notice anything unpleasant can you move your attention to it and take some deep breathes. If your mind is wandering that’s normal, just notice this happening and gently bring yourself back to your body. You are riding the wave of this craving, it can feel scary but know it will pass soon.
Step 5: Come back to your surroundings
When you feel ready take a deep breath. Notice how you feel. Check in with the craving, does it feel the same? Better? Worse? Slowly get up, stretch and get back to your day!
You have now surfed a craving! Take a moment to congratulate yourself, this stuff is not easy. If urge surfing didn’t work for you the first time don’t give up. Mindfulness is a skill just like working a muscle, it takes time, patience, and practice. Mindfulness is not a cure, it won’t get rid of painful feelings, it teaches us to sit with our painful feelings which takes the power out of them. Give yourself time to practice, take it slowly, and try again.
Jessica is a melbourne-based clinical psychologist who specialises in young people and parents going through the perinatal stage. She also helps patients manage depression, anxiety, personality disorders, relationship difficulties, eating disorders and trauma. With experience across clinical and educational settings, Jessica is now working with Orygen Digital in digital mental health program planning and implementation.
Jessica believes in a holistic approach to mental health that takes diet and lifestyle into account. She understands the monumental impact sugar can have on us and is dedicated to helping people improve their quality of life – starting with what we put on our plates.