You are bound to encounter addiction triggers during your recovery process. This is to be expected—it happens to all recovering addicts. Thus, you should not regard cravings for your former 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 drugs again, try to gain some insight into your addiction. Use these moments to understand what drives these cravings so you can start to identify, and even anticipate, the high-risk triggers of your addiction.
The Nature of Cravings and Urges
Cravings and urges are very acute during the early stages of addiction recovery. You take a huge step forward in your recovery every time you defeat an urge to drink or use drugs again. If you give in and “feed” an urge, that urge will recur and increase in intensity. However, if you resist “feeding” urges each time they come up, over time they will begin to subside. This is a great way to find emotional balance in early recovery.
Keep a Record of Your Cravings
Many recovering addicts find it helpful to write down the circumstances and situations that trigger cravings. 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 that triggers your urge to feed an old addiction.
Recording your cravings may be the first step to recognizing the origins of your past addiction and finding different 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 techniques you used.
Guideline for Recording Daily Urges
You can use the following format as a guide for jotting down the details of each craving as it occurs. In a notebook, record the following:
Date and time: This may seem tedious, but will help you record any pattern of urges or changes in the intensity of cravings.
Situation: Record the environment, your thoughts, your feelings and anything about the situation that seemed to trigger the urge to use.
Intensity of craving: Rate your craving according to a number system. For example:
- 1 is no urge
- 2 is a mild urge
- 100 is the most intense urge
Coping behaviors used: Note how you cope with the urge to use. If it helps, note the effectiveness of your coping technique.
Urge Surfing: A Useful Coping Mechanism
Many people in addiction recovery try to cope with their urges by gritting their teeth and toughing it out until the craving passes. Some urges are overwhelmingly strong, especially if you return to your old using environment. 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 is used because the urges of addiction can feel like ocean waves. They start small, grow larger and gain momentum before finally crashing on the shore. 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 rides a wave, staying on top of it as it builds and gains momentum until it crests, breaks and dissolves into harmless, foamy bubbles.
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 allows you to take control while conserving your energy.
3 Basic Steps of Urge Surfing:
- 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 throughout your body. 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, or in my stomach.”
- Focus on one area affected by the urge. Assess the exact sensations in that specific 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. Some 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.”
- Assess each part of your body that experiences the craving. Pay attention to the parts of your body that experience craving and assess what these sensations are like. Describe the changes that occur with each sensation, and take note of 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.
Overcoming Addiction Triggers
Most people notice that a craving vanishes after several minutes of urge surfing. The purpose of this exercise is to experience the craving in a new way. If you practice urge surfing with each craving, you’ll become more familiar with your addiction triggers while learning how to ride them out until they go away easily. Most importantly, you will learn that you can ride them out.