You are bound to have cravings and urges during your recovery process—this is to be expected. It happens to all recovering addicts, so you should not regard cravings for your substance of choice or urges to use as signs of failure. Instead of beating yourself up every time you have the urge to drink or use again, try to gain some insight into your addiction. Use these moments to try and understand what triggers your cravings. Learn something from these moments so you can start to identify, and even anticipate, the triggers of your addiction.
The Nature of Cravings and Urges
Remember that while urges to fall off the wagon can be very acute in the beginning of your recovery process, over time they will begin to diminish in intensity. You take a huge step forward in your recovery every time you defeat an urge to drink or use again. If you give in and “feed” an urge, be prepared for that urge to come back a bit stronger the next time. If you can resist “feeding” urges each time they come up, eventually they will subside.
Keep a Record of Your Cravings
Many recovering addicts and alcoholics find it helpful to write down the circumstances of cravings as they come up. What time of day did the craving hit you? What was the situation? Were you in a social setting, a work setting or alone? Where were you when the urge to use crept up on you? By keeping a record like this, you may begin to see a pattern emerge—a pattern of situations or circumstances that trigger your urge to feed your addiction.
Recording your cravings may be your first step to recognizing the origins of your addiction, and that is the first step to finding other coping mechanisms. Give it a try. For the next week, make a daily record of urges to use drugs or alcohol, the intensity of those urges, and the coping behaviors you used.
Guideline for Daily Record of Urges to Use
In a notebook, you might use the following format as a guide for jotting down the details of each craving as it comes up:
Date and time: This may seem tedious, but will help you record any patterns of cravings and changes in intensity of cravings.
Situation: Include the environment and anything about the situation and your thoughts or feelings that seemed to trigger the urge to use.
Intensity of craving: Rate your craving according to a number system.
- 1 is no urge
- 2 is mild urge
- 100 is the worst ever
Coping behaviors used: Note how you attempted to cope with the urge to use. If it helps, note the effectiveness of your coping technique.
Urge Surfing: A Useful Technique
Many people in addiction recovery try to cope with their urges by gritting their teeth and toughing it out until the urge passes. Some urges, especially if and when you first return to your old using environment, are overwhelmingly strong. When this happens, it can be useful to stay with your urge to use until it passes.
This technique is called urge surfing. This metaphorical term may be used because the urges of addiction can feel like ocean waves. They start small, then grow larger and gather momentum, and finally they break on the rocks or crash on the shore and dissipate. You may find it helpful to use this metaphor as a way to get through your urges. You can imagine yourself as a surfer who will ride the wave, staying on top of it as it builds and gains momentum until it crests, breaks, and disperses into the harmless, foamy surf.
The basis of urge surfing is similar to that of many martial arts. You overpower an opponent by first going with the force of the attack. By joining with your opponent’s force, you can redirect it to your advantage. This type of technique to gain control by first going with the force or momentum of your opponent allows you to take control and also to conserve your energy. Urge surfing is similar.
The 3 Basic Steps of Urge Surfing:
1. Take an inventory of how you experience the urge or craving. Sit in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in a comfortable position. Take a few deep breaths and focus inward. Allow your attention to wander through your body. Pay attention to where in your body you experience the craving and what the sensations are like. Notice each area where you experience the urge and tell yourself what you are experiencing. You might notice, “My craving is in my mouth and nose and in my stomach.”
2. Focus on one area where you are experiencing the urge. Assess the exact sensations in that area of your body. Do you feel hot, cold, tingly, or numb? Are your muscles tense or relaxed? Describe the sensations to yourself and make note of any changes that occur in the sensations. Your inward observations may be, “My mouth feels dry and parched. There is tension in my lips and tongue. I keep swallowing. As I exhale, I can imagine the smell and taste of marijuana.”
3. Assess each part of your body that experiences the craving. Pay attention to and describe to yourself the changes that occur in the sensations. Notice how the urge comes and goes. After a few more minutes of being attentive to your urge, you will likely find that it goes away.
Most people notice that after several minutes of urge surfing their craving vanishes. The purpose of this exercise, however, is not to make the craving go away but to experience the craving in a new way. If you practice urge surfing with each craving, you’ll become more familiar with them (and what triggered them), and you’ll learn how to ride them out until they go away easily. Most importantly, you will learn that you can ride them out.