All posts,  Self development

Dealing with cravings by surfing the urge

Surfing that craving might help you lose weight

Craving sweet, fatty, or otherwise unhealthy food might be one of the biggest hurdles that trip up those of us on the path to a healthy weight. Food cravings are a perfectly normal part of life. It’s rare you come across someone who says they never ever have a strong desire to eat some particular food. Lucky b*******s!

For the rest of us, there’s urge surfing. “What is this magick of which you speak?” I’m glad you asked.

Gordon Marlatt coined the phrase ‘urge surfing’ in a chapter he wrote for a book on achieving behaviour change published in 1994. It’s a specific application of the mindful attitude I’ve written about previously. The idea is pretty simple. When you have a craving, watch it for a while, without immediately letting it dictate your behaviour. Just watch the feeling, with playful curiosity. See what happens.

There aren’t all that many studies on urge surfing as an approach, but they’re pretty convincing so far. There’s plenty of background evidence. For example, Marlatt conducted a study with Brian Ostafin, published in 2008, where they showed that students who already had an accepting attitude to cravings for booze were less likely to drink dangerously.

The best experimental evidence to date, I think, comes from a study lead by Evan Forman, at Drexel University. His team introduced participants to an urge surfing type intervention, then sent them off from the lab carrying a transparent box of Hershey’s Kisses. They were to carry the box about and not eat the chocolates. Forty-eight hours later, the folks who hadn’t received the advice on how to resist their cravings reported that their cravings were worse, compared with the group who’d been taught the technique. Crucially, urge surfing helped people eat less chocolate.

My lab at the University of Chester has just done a very similar study, testing out how well this technique works over a whole week. (We wanted to start ruling out the possibility that it’s just a novelty effect.) Our colleagues at the University of Wolverhampton conducted the study at the same time, too, with different participants. It wouldn’t be proper to describe our results until they’ve been through peer-review, but let’s just say we’re very excited!

So, how the hell do you use urge surfing to start getting that chocolate monkey, that pizza devil, and the black dog of ice cream off your back? (Sorry. Too much tea.)


Learn to surf your urges

Usually, we deal with uncomfortable feelings by trying to control them. For example, we sometimes have a strong desire or craving to eat some chocolate. We might try all sorts of things to get rid of this unpleasant urge to eat chocolate. We might distract ourselves from the thought by going and doing some other activity. We might tell ourselves that we shouldn’t, or even that we’ll have failed our diet if we do eat chocolate. Or we might eat something else hoping that the urge for chocolate will fade if we’re no longer as hungry. We might even think of reasons why it’s OK to eat chocolate right now so that you can give yourself permission to eat it. We often find that even giving in and eating the chocolate won’t get rid of the urge completely. That’s why we sometimes binge on chocolate!

All of these approaches share one common feature. They all assume that the best way to deal with the urge is to try to get rid of it or pay less attention to it. This is because we tend to deal with thoughts the same way that we deal with external objects. If there is an annoying dog barking in the room, we can move the dog outside and get rid of the irritation. With thoughts, however, trying to get rid of them often makes them clearer, stronger, and more persistent.

An alternative strategy is to ‘accept’ that the urge is there, that it’s not easy to get rid of, and that there might be another way to respond to it.

‘Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”’

— Seneca, Letter 18

The little exercise below is set up to let you create an urge or craving, so that you can watch it.

So let’s have a go. This should take a few minutes. Go slowly. Pause. Revel in it. Read through the instructions once, then follow along as you read a second time.

Better still, listen to me reading the instructions to you, so you can really pay attention to the task.

Find a bar of chocolate, or another food you crave. Maybe pack of cookies. Whatever works for you. Some of the following instructions might be harder with ice cream. Improvise!

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Put your food on the table in front of you, where you can see it.  Don’t touch it for now.

Look at wrapper or container, if it has one. Notice the texture.  Notice any creases in the wrapper.  Notice the colours.  Is it shiny? Can you see spots of light reflecting on the surface? What might it feel like to touch?

Pick the food up and hold it lightly in your palm.  Look at the food in your hand.

Pass it between your hands.  Notice what it feels like in between your fingers.  Is it cold?  Does it feel smooth?

Take the food and look how you might unwrap it.  Gently start to open it and listen for the sound as the wrapper tears or the lid start to come away.

Can you smell it yet?

Lift it up to your eyes and get a close look. Do you notice anything new? Anything unexpected?

Smell the food. Take a long deep breath.

Take a piece or spoonful, and touch the food gently to your lips without tasting it. What does it feel like on your lips? Is it cold? Is it smooth?

Take a deep breath through your mouth. Can you taste the food? Where can you taste it? On your tongue? In your throat?

Put the food on the table.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you want to e  at that food right now?

Notice what’s happening in your body, do you feel the urge to eat it. Is your mouth watering? Does your stomach rumble? Do you feel hungry?

Would you like to eat the food in front of you?

OK, keep paying attention to the food and see how that feeling changes.

Do you carry on having the same strong feeling that you want to eat the food right now. Do you continue to salivate?

Notice the other thoughts that you are having. Experience what it feels like to sit with this urge.  Notice your own objections, and how intolerable, how stupid it feels to just sit with this urge.

Let’s just keep noticing this for a minute or two.  Keep paying attention to the food.  Do your thoughts change?

Try not to like or dislike the feelings and urges you are having.  Don’t be defensive or think the urges are wrong. Just notice them.

Remember, you have the choice to accept, rather than fight and control your urges.  Just let them come and go, without reacting to them.

You don’t have to let the urges control you. Know that you are in control of whether or not you eat this food.

Can you still smell the food as strongly?

Let’s keep noticing this for a bit longer.

Keep paying attention to the food.

Does the urge change?

OK. Time’s up.

When you feel tempted to eat food this week, take time to see if you can surf this urge and resist your craving.

You’ve just had a go at ‘urge surfing’, the process by which you “ride the wave” of your urges or cravings. By being aware of your urges and cravings, you can surf them instead of ‘sinking’, or giving in to them. With urge surfing we learn that each urge comes along like a wave. It builds, peaks, and eventually passes. We know there’ll be another urge, just as there is another wave, but this too will pass.


P.S. Did you know that it’s compulsory to sound like that when you guide someone in any vaguely meditation-y exercise? It’s true! They passed a law in California in the 60’s. You have to sound like you’re coming out of a marijuana-induced coma or else they throw you out of the mindfulness club. True story.