Cravings are powerful emotions that underlie habitual behaviours.
We all experience them, whether they are cravings for food, alcohol, cigarettes or other very addictive substances. Generally we are not very good at ignoring our cravings, and fighting them often leads to an internal back and forth argument that eventually wins, because the emotional turmoil is exhausting. It becomes easier just to give in.
It’s kind of like this video of kids trying not to eat marshmallows.
So instead of attempting to ignore or fight our cravings, we can use a mindfulness technique called ‘urge surfing’, where the idea is that all cravings have a lifespan, and we can learn to ride them out like a wave.
Just as a wave crests and falls, an urge will peak in intensity and then gradually subside into nothing – the important part is to remember that the intensity won’t last forever. By maintaining awareness and mindfulness around what you are experiencing, we can learn to ‘urge surf’ our cravings.
Consider these two real-life scenarios.
Jenny is sitting on the couch watching a movie. She starts to feel a bit hungry. She remembers that KFC has a 24 chicken nugget deal for $10. She really likes nuggets, and that’s a cheap deal because she is trying to save money.
She starts to think about how nuggets taste, and her stomach rumbles. The craving builds in intensity.
All she can think about is nuggets. “I can just jump in the car and go through the drive through, I’ll be back in 10 minutes and can keep watching this movie”, she thinks.
Mark gets home from work, it’s been a tough day and he really wants a glass of wine.
He starts to think about how his favourite red will taste. He thinks about how relaxed he will feel after one glass. He knows that his wife gets concerned when he starts drinking after work because he normally finishes the bottle, and she doesn’t like it when he gets drunk and aggressive. “But I can just have one glass”, he thinks.
So how would Mark and Jenny urge-surf these cravings?
The following techniques can be applied for all scenarios.
1. They acknowledge the urge.
They stop, take a breath, and acknowledge the reality of the situation.
“I am having an obsessive thought that I have a need. It’s not real; it’s just a strong belief. I may feel I have a sense of urgency, but there is actually nothing urgent going on”.
In Jenny’s scenario, she is hungry. Her body is secreting ghrelin, a hunger hormone that is telling her brain she needs to eat, and when she had a thought about chicken nuggets, her brain honed in on that craving and refused to let go.
In Mark’s scenario, he needs to de-stress. Due to past experiences his brain is wired to crave alcohol and is easily triggered when he feels stressed and tired. This addictive compulsion does not make Mark a bad person, but it is a deeply ingrained ‘solution’ to a problem. However, he can learn to exercise control over how he responds to this problem.
2. They refocus the urge.
They buy themselves time for the wave to crest and fall. At this stage we are just looking for 15 minutes. Refocus your energy and thoughts by going for a walk, doing some exercise, watching some television, going for a drive, or switching on some music, for example.
Jenny takes a breath; she gets up and stretches her arms above her head, and then bends forward to touch her toes. She pauses the movie, and heads over to the kettle in the kitchen and switches it on. She makes a cup of tea, and thinks about the craving. Then she looks in the fridge. “Perhaps I am just craving protein”, she thinks. She gets out the hummus and eats some with crackers.
Mark gets the bottle of wine out of the cupboard, and then a glass. He puts them on the bench, and then places his hands on the bench and takes a breath. “I am just really stressed”, he thinks. He walks into the bedroom and changes into his board shorts, and grabs a towel and the dog’s lead. He takes the dog for a walk to the beach and has a swim to de-stress.
3. They re-value the urge.
This is where they start thinking about the big picture. Why are we not giving in to the craving? Why are we performing these steps?
For Jenny, she feels incredible guilt after eating chicken nuggets as she knows they are not healthy. She wants to be healthy to reduce her risk of disease and because she is looking to conceive. The guilt and the adverse health affects means giving in to every craving is not worth it for her.
For Mark, his relationship with his wife is at risk if he keeps drinking. His marriage is extremely important to him, so he does all he can to ride his cravings out.
If at first urge surfing doesn’t work for you, keep practicing. Every new habit takes a while to become ingrained. Over time, it gets easier, like flexing a muscle and building strength. Sometimes, we do give in to cravings and that is alright too. Paying attention to how we feel after we have given in to our urges is a good way to pinpoint whether we need to make a change.
Courtney Wilkinson (BHSc Nutr Med ATMS) - Clinical Nutritionist at The Melbourne Centre of Healing.