Ride the Wave: Using Mindfulness to Cope with Urges
Starting a fitness journey has a lot of layers. People think it’s simple - show up to the gym, do the movements, eat whole foods, stay away from sugar, go to bed early. Well, although the information is out there and it’s SIMPLE...it’s never usually easy. Especially when you’ve been using coping mechanisms to deal with stress for a long time, I find that people (myself included) have a lot of trouble rewiring their brains to develop the habits they say they want to implement. Sometimes there are layers that must be peeled back like an onion in order to change your habits and show up for yourself. That’s totally fine - we’re human and we’re complex.
That being said, my favorite thing about coaching is watching people bloom, evolve, and develop awareness. We’re like a team - we work together to overcome challenges and establish strategies so they don’t feel so easily defeated. It’s so beautiful when they begin to notice the things they do (without judgement) through out the day that keep them from moving toward a life fully lived or health goals they’d like to achieve. We look at these habits with a curiosity that takes away guilt.
When people come to me, they usually have analysis paralysis from all the information out there, they need support and guidance along their journey, and they also want the comfort of knowing someone is in their court rooting for them.
I teach intuitive eating. I don’t write out specific meal plans because you can google that and find a million of those for free. I teach you how to observe yourself and your habits and figure out what’s stopping you from gettin’ your goals. However, intuitive eating doesn’t mean eating whatever the heck you want at any time of the day - it means listening to your body and determining what it NEEDS from you.
One of the first things we tackle is taking on the eye of the watcher. I encourage my peeps to begin noticing how they react to stressful situations and the urges they have throughout the day around food and even alcohol. If you’ve been using food to cope with feelings for a long time, you’ll only be able to white knuckle through a plan for so long without having roadblocks.
Although I tend to focus heavily on the relationship people have developed with food, these urges can show up in a variety of ways: video games, TV, shopping, phone usage, and even chewing your nails. Once you develop awareness, you’ll start noticing every little thing you do and it becomes very interesting. Although none of these things are terrible, if they’re stopping you from doing the things you want to do, we can figure out other ways to deal with stress and emotion.
SO - what do you do in a moment when you’re having an urge? First, recognize that it’s challenging but completely possible. Our brains are malleable and can change with diligence and intention. It’s going to take a combination of mindfulness and behavior-change strategies, but YOU GOT THIS!
One of my favorite methods to dealing with an urge in real time is a technique called “Urge Surfing.” This is a way to use mindfulness that has proven effective for dealing with urges developed by psychologist and addiction specialist Alan Marlatt.
This is something I’ve used successfully to overcome binge eating and even alcohol dependency. Although I was never truly addicted to alcohol, there was a time when I heavily used it to cope with my stress, depression, and intense emotions.
How do you do it??
Think about it as riding a wave.
1. The first step is crucial. Notice when you have an urge. Instead of immediately acting on it...PAUSE. Sit with the feeling. That’s all an urge is: a feeling and it does NOT have power over you. YOU have power over it.
2. FEEL the urge. Notice where the physical sensation of the urge is happening in your body. Is it in your stomach? Your chest? Maybe even your mouth? Zero in on that area of your body and try to mindfully notice the sensations you feel.
3. Allow the feelings to rise and peak just like a wave. You can imagine yourself as a surfer on this wave of feelings - visualization is very powerful here. Picture yourself on the wave as it’s cresting and swelling and then crashing to shore. You can ride the wave all the way back in to the beach.
4. Don’t panic as you’re riding the wave. It’s empowering to picture yourself being in control of the surfboard and coasting along. What comes up, must come back down and the feeling will eventually subside.
You can urge surf for a minute or two. After the urge goes away, there’s a good chance it’ll come back and that’s okay. Don’t get upset with yourself because this is part of the process. Be gentle and just get your surfboard ready to ride the wave again. You might feel the urge in a different part of your body and you can focus on that area the next time. Look at it as a challenge or a game you play with yourself.
Why does this work??
I get it that you might be skeptical if this is all new to you, but you can think about this scientifically. When we pause before acting upon an urge, we interrupt the animal part of our brain that just acts immediately on urges, and shift to a newer more evolved part of our brain. I’ve even gotten into the habit of joking with myself and saying “Oh hey, Monkey Brain! Let’s be a human for a minute.” It makes it playful and takes the pressure away.
This pattern interruption is SO important when learning to deal with urges. You’ll start to take comfort in that pause and maybe even chuckle at yourself. We begin to learn that the urge isn’t anything life threatening and it most certainly isn’t a command, but rather just an interesting sensation that we can move through and distance ourselves from.
Have you ever tried urge surfing? If not, give it a try and let me know if it works for you! What came up? Where did you feel the sensations in your body?
Do you have any other strategies that work when dealing with urges? Let me know in the comments :)