Mindfully Coping with Urges & Addictions

By Leo Babauta

Many of us have something that we’d like to change in our lives, but it can be pretty difficult to overcome addictions or strong urges.

The things we want to quit, and the urges we want to overcome, can span a pretty wide gamut:

Of course, none of these activities is necessarily horrible, but lots of us would like to change behaviors around one or more of these. Urges stand in our way.

So how can we deal with these urges and addictions? It’s tough. I’ve found that it takes a combination of mindfulness and behavior-change strategies.

Let’s dive in and see how we can create a multi-pronged approach to coping with these urges and addictions.

Urge Surfing

A mindfulness technique that has proven effective for dealing with addictions is called “urge surfing,” a widely-used technique developed by psychologist and addictions-pioneer Alan Marlatt.

It’s something I used successfully when I quit smoking cigarettes more than a decade ago, and I’ve used it many times since then for other types of urges.

Here’s how I practice it:

  1. Notice when you have an urge. Pause instead of acting on it, and just sit with it mindfully.
  2. Notice where the physical sensation of the urge is located in your body. Is it in your stomach? Chest? Mouth? Focus on that area of your body and try to mindfully notice the sensations you feel.
  3. Allow them to rise and peak, and then crest and subside, like a wave. Just watch them, as if you’re watching a wave. It’s not anything to panic about, it’s just a sensation rising and falling.

You can do this for a minute or two, or even longer. After the urge subsides, it might come back, and you can repeat this. You can also move on to other areas of your body where you notice urge-related sensations.

Why this works: We interrupt the part of our brain that just acts immediately on urges, and shift to a new part of our brain. This pattern interruption is crucial to dealing with urges. We also learn that the urge isn’t anything urgent, isn’t a command, but rather just an interesting sensation that we can distance ourselves from.

Changing Our Environment

Another strategy that works incredibly well is changing your environment:

  1. Removing temptations from your environment. When I wanted to change my diet, I tossed out all junk food.
  2. Removing yourself from the tempting environment. Don’t go into your office kitchen area if you want to avoid the snacks. At an office party, you can move away from the cake area.
  3. Changing the environment to make you less likely to give in to temptation. For example, at a burger restaurant, I might tell my kids that I’ll give them $20 if they see me eat a French fry. I never eat French fries when I do this.

I find the first option to be the best, when I’m able to control my environment (living and working at home alone is a great example of when you can do that). If I can’t control my environment, I try to do one of the other two options.

Why this works: If there aren’t any temptations around, or they’re hard to get to, the urges are much less strong. Seeing cake in front of you, or being around people smoking or doing drugs or alcohol, makes you much more likely to have an urge to do those activities. If we can engineer our environment to make it less likely to be around temptations, we’ll have fewer or weaker urges to deal with.

Coping Abilities

Addictions are often our way of coping with stress or other difficulties. If we get into an argument with our spouse, lose a loved one to cancer, get yelled at by our boss … we need some way to cope with those stresses.

Over the years, we’ve learned to use the addiction as a coping mechanism. So now when the stress comes up, we get strong urges to do the addiction.

We can’t just remove the addiction, then, because we’re still going to have stress to cope with. We need to put something healthier in its place to deal with stress in our lives.

So when we try to quit an addiction, and stress comes up, we need a new healthier coping mechanism. And when the urge comes up, we need to do the new coping mechanism instead of the old habit.

Some examples:

Pick one, and try to do it whenever you have stress. Soon you’ll have a healthier way to cope.

Why this works: If you put another coping mechanism in place, you’ll need your addiction less, and the urges will be less strong over time.

Raise Your Baseline: Sleep, Support, Emotional Health

When we are tired, depressed, or lonely … we just don’t have the willpower or emotional baseline to deal with stress, urges, addictions. We’ll give in, forget about urge surfing, forget about changing our environment or creating a new coping mechanism. Nothing seems to matter.

So raise your baseline:

  1. Get adequate sleep and rest. Make this a priority, or none of the rest will matter. Shut off devices at a certain time each night, write out your to-do list for tomorrow, brush and floss, and then meditate while going to sleep.
  2. Get some support. Friends you can talk to, professional support, a support group online. Lean on them and talk about your difficulties, and listen to them in return. Creating this kind of connection means you’re less likely to feel isolated.
  3. Deal with feelings of depression, loneliness, sadness. Solutions to these is a whole book in itself, so I won’t cover them here, but if you’re not emotionally healthy, the addictions are much more likely to stick around (or relapse). So make working on your emotional health a priority as well. The sleep and support, and healthier coping mechanisms, are good starts here.

Why this works: Increasing your baseline means you’re going to be stronger at dealing with your urges.

Putting It All Together: A Plan

With all of that in mind, here’s a plan you might start implementing …

Each week, pick one or two of these to focus on:

  1. Get good sleep. See the tips in the section above.
  2. Get support. Again, friends, online support groups, local support groups, professional help.
  3. Practice surfing the urges. You don’t have to be perfect at this, just practice.
  4. Start to change your environment. Toss out the stuff that makes you tempted, or block the sites that tempt you.
  5. Start to work on your emotional health. A gratitude practice is a good start for many people, though professional help might be recommended for some.
  6. Pick another coping strategy: deep breathing, yoga, meditation, going for a walk, talking to someone else, hot tea, self-massage are my favorites. Choose a couple to try out.
  7. Find your weak points and change the environment or create a strategy around that environment. For example, can you remove yourself from the environment or enlist the help of others to stop you from giving in to temptation?

Again, don’t worry about doing this all at once … pick a couple each week and work on them, then another couple the next week, and so on. Revisit ones that need more practice or fine-tuning.

Look at this as a learning exercise, where you’re not going to just quit a habit overnight, but get better and better at dealing with the urges and addiction over time.

I’ll tell you something, from my own experience: it’s possible. If you know how much damage this causes you (and your relationships, work, etc.), then you’ll put the effort in to stop hurting yourself in this way. And that is a loving thing.

“I dwell in possibility.” ~Emily Dickinson