The ocean can be a very soothing, peaceful thing to watch.
The gentle waves seem to roll onto the beaches effortlessly, singing a song of tranquility. However, when you are out in the waters it is a much different sensation.
Those seemingly calm, rolling waves now toss you up and down. What looked from the shore to be soft ripples actually are mighty swells that threaten to turn everything floating on its surface upside down. Fear grips you, and your heart pounds.
For people who have struggled with substance use disorders and have entered rehabilitation treatment, these descriptions can feel eerily similar to the cravings and urges felt as the body discovers sobriety again. Handling these sensations without getting sucked under is paramount to recovery.
Diving Into Stormy Seas
Everyone has cravings and urges. People who have a substance use disorder know cravings and urges intimately. They are used to giving in to those cravings, though, and recovery means telling the cravings “no.” But, like the ocean, waves keep rolling in regardless of whether you want them to or not.
The key is to find coping mechanisms and thought processes that help keep you on an even keel through the rise and swell of the urges so that you find peace after they pass. This may sound difficult, but it is simply a matter of conditioning and changing the thought processes associated with cravings and urges.
Urge surfing is a method coined by the late Alan Marlatt, Ph.D. Dr. Marlatt was quite a pioneer in the field of addiction treatment as both a psychologist and professor. Thinking of urges as being like ocean waves is easy to visualize. Surfers and boats ride over the waves, using them to move forward. Those in recovery, too, can learn to ride atop the “urge” waves.
Finding Restful Waters
The concept of “urge surfing” is one of mindfulness. Essentially, when you “surf” an urge, you find a quiet place where you can sit or lie down and let yourself notice all of the sensations the craving triggers in your body and your emotions. What parts of your brain or body are activated, and what does that feel like? The sensations might feel overwhelming; they might trigger strong emotional reactions like anger or fear or despair.
In urge surfing, breath is key. As the urges peak and crash, let your breath be your surfboard. Keep breathing slowly and steadily, letting the breath help you detach from the sensations. With regular practice, you may find that it becomes easier to notice when a craving is starting, what it feels like, and to let it run its course as you calmly observe it with your breath.
“Surfing” the urges to use substances can be scary at first. Being in the waves you’d only watched from a distance is always more nerve-wracking than sitting on the shore observing others. But you’ll find that the breath–the simple, steady breath–is powerful. It can help you ride the waves rather than being overwhelmed by them.
Additional Coping Mechanisms
As you probably learned in treatment, there are many other effective coping mechanisms to use in combination with urge surfing. Therapeutic activities such as meditation, music, or journaling can help you build a tolerance to cravings so that they won’t seem so powerful over time.
Avoiding triggers and situations where you will be confronted with your substance or past use is also important. Turn the channel on TV when you see someone engaging in substance use or substances being advertised, and avoid other entertainment sources that heavily emphasize substance use. Having a good support system and not hanging out with the people you associate with substance use is also beneficial to lessening urges.
We Can Help
Living in sobriety, when it is new, can be challenging. But no one has to struggle alone. The staff of Iowa’s St. Gregory Recovery Center are here to help people overcome their struggle with substance use and successfully navigate the open waters of life after addiction. Don’t try to fight the urges on your own. We will gladly help you learn to navigate the stormy waves.