Surfing the Urge: How to Quench Cravings

by | Feb 10, 2014

Photo by Aristocrats-hat

You probably know by now that I’m not the biggest fan of willpower. It’s weak. It’s fallible. And it often backfires when we need it most.

If you were dating willpower I’d tell you to dump the jerk immediately. Seriously, you can do better.

The reason I’m so hard on willpower is because the vast majority of the people I talk to still believe it is the solution to their health and weight struggles, and it’s not.

For long-term goals, willpower is far too unreliable to carry you through. Eventually it will break down, and the rebound you experience will be far worse than if you weren’t trying to control your behavior at all.

That said, willpower can be incredibly powerful for short-term goals. When you need to study for an exam or tolerate your family during the holidays, self-control is often your greatest asset. The most effective foodists must learn when and how to use willpower to your advantage, and when to let it go and fall back on habits.

When it comes to food, one of the best uses for willpower is when you’re experiencing cravings. Cravings are internal signals that drive you to act against your better judgement. They can come on suddenly and be intensely powerful, driving all else from your mind except the object of desire.

Cravings are insidious because they do not reflect a real need or emergency, but they hijack your brain into believing that the universe cannot continue unless you get what you crave.

It’s almost like it isn’t you that controls your mind anymore, but some dark force that conspires against your best intentions. Giving into cravings feels so necessary when you do it, but totally icky afterward because you get this sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t you calling the shots. It’s almost like someone else took over your mind.

Fortunately, cravings can be tamed. But the most effective method for quenching cravings is very counterintuitive, so will require practice and a bit of faith in the method.

First, if you’re experiencing cravings regularly you should always start by ensuring your habits aren’t triggering cravings more often than necessary. Be sure you’re eating a wide variety of nutrient dense foods, and not lacking any major nutrients like protein, slowly-digesting carbohydrates, fats, vitamins or minerals.

Also use techniques to reduce stress, and put yourself on a regular schedule of eating, sleeping and exercise to optimize your natural biological rhythms.

Remove obvious triggers like candies and other snack foods from your house and office if possible.

But even under ideal circumstances, almost everyone will experience a craving at some time or another. When these hit, don’t try to fight them or distract yourself from them. As we’ve seen, these techniques tend to backfire and induce more frequent and intense cravings down the line. And when we give in, we tend to go overboard because of the what-the-hell effect.

Instead of fighting with your craving, use a technique called surfing the urge. Urge surfing is a technique for riding out a craving without giving into it. I first learned about this technique in Kelly McGonigal’s brilliant book, The Willpower Instinct, which is the best book I’ve read on self-control and behavioral change.

Surfing the urge is based on mindfulness practice, and has been shown to be far more effective at increasing self-control and decreasing relapse than methods that rely on distraction or trying to push the urge away.

The first essential component of urge surfing is understanding that all cravings eventually pass, whether or not you give in to them. The secret to getting through the craving is riding it out like a wave.

Instead of being afraid of failure and wishing the urge would away, observe it passively and without judgement. Understand that it will come on suddenly, grow and build, peak, then crash and dissipate, like a wave in the ocean.

Cravings almost never last more than 30 minutes, so once that time passes you will be in the clear.

Next time you feel a craving come on, don’t panic. Instead find a comfortable seat and sit up straight. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. When the discomfort of the craving grabs your attention, notice the feeling without judgment, as if you were on an alien planet and just trying to observe an interesting new phenomenon.

Notice if and where the feeling manifests in your body. Is your heart beating faster? Are you salivating? Is your jaw tense? Are your hands sweaty or cold? Observe how your body reacts to the craving, then gently take your attention back to your breath and let the feeling go.

This urge surfing technique has been shown to reduce the intensity and frequency of cravings. More important, it makes it much less likely you will give in to them.

For this technique to be most effective, practice mindfulness when you are not experiencing a craving. Try spending 5 minutes each morning just sitting and focusing on your breath. When you notice an itch or a discomfort, observe it passively without acting on it. Notice how it dissipates without you doing anything. Bring your attention back to your breath whenever you remember.

You can learn the full urge surfing technique from scientist Sarah Bowen in this audio file.

Have you tried mindfulness or surfing the urge to quench cravings?

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16 Responses to “Surfing the Urge: How to Quench Cravings”

  1. Kate says:

    Just last night I had the most intense sweets craving after a healthy & filling dinner and I KNEW it was not genuine hunger. I brushed my teeth and washed up the dishes, trying to signal to myself I was done eating for the day, which partly helped.

    I did tell myself, “You know you had three good meals today and you’re actually full and you’re just craving sweets because you’re still very tired — and feeling sorry for yourself — because you’re recovering from the flu,” which also partly helped.

    Still, helped enough to not give in, but not to alleviate the craving iteself.

    I felt like the scene in “American Werewolf in London,” where on the day of the full moon, he’s bored and restless and pacing and prowling around the apartment he’s staying in, not knowing why!

    I’m going to read up on the full technique and hope to use it next time.

  2. Ty M says:

    Love the point about willpower… so what’s the better date?

    And thanks for the tip on the McGonigal book; it’s available on audible too.

  3. Constance Reader says:

    “Cravings almost never last more than 30 minutes,…”

    On what planet? If cravings lasted no more than 30 minutes, they wouldn’t be a problem.

    • g says:

      I have to agree. 30-minute cravings are the exception for me. They usually linger for a few days, at which point I usually have some of whatever it is because I want my mind to finally be able to focus on other things.

    • Meghan says:

      Seriously! My craving will go on until I cave in. That could be hours, days, weeks, even months. My mind does not move on.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Interesting and thanks for the feedback. In this post I’m definitely referring to the kind of acute cravings that occur in response to specific triggers. Like the craving for ice cream every night after dinner, or the urge to smoke when you’re trying to quit.

      I used to only get chronic cravings (e.g. for bran muffins) when I was on a specifically restricted diet (e.g. low-carb). Since I stopped with the restrictive diets and started focusing on health and nutrient diversity, I hardly ever get the intense cravings I used to get. (I admit it’s still hard to skip the wine after a stressful day).

      I’m curious what types of foods haunt you for days? What do you think causes it?

      • g says:

        Oh, it could be anything from sausages to chips to vanilla yoghurt to bread to cheese to kebap… Not sure what causes it, though.

      • Nick Frye says:

        Is there any research on the length of cravings? I have not been able to find any and from personal experience I would agree with some of the other commentators that a 30-minute craving is the exception not the rule.

        I have also found in my professional experience that giving people a “time-frame” for cravings only encourages control-based strategies like distractions; i.e. “If I can just sit here and watch the clock for 30 minutes this craving will go away.” And as you pointed out this will only serve to strengthen the craving and increase distress engendered by these experiences.

        Have you found it helpful to provide a time-frame? What are your thoughts on not providing a time frame to encourage active acceptance for as long as the craving lasts? Be it 5 minutes, 30 minutes or 24 hours?

    • Darya Rose says:

      Good point about the time frame. I didn’t mean this as a goal or arbitrary limit. The point of this exercise is to be mindful of cravings and recognize that they are 1) endurable and 2) temporary.

      The urge surfing concept comes from the addiction treatment world. I don’t think the implication is that your desires go away completely after you get through a single craving. My understanding is that this is more of a tool to get you through that moment when you are about to give in to something that another part of your brain would rather not give in to. It gives you a way to manage it in the moment and remember your higher goal.

  4. Sheena says:

    Thanks for this Darya. Unfortunately I gave in to my cravings yesterday following an emotional argument at home and stress at work – hopefully today (and onwards!) will be better with this technique.

  5. Katie says:

    I find the best way to get through cravings is to promise myself I can have whatever it is I’m craving as soon as I’ve eaten a piece of fruit. 9 times out of 10 I no longer want the chocolate/sweets or whatever after I’ve had my fruit.

  6. Ashley says:

    One of the tricks I learned from reading your book was to tell myself I can have whatever I want to eat, so I don’t feel deprived. So my best craving-fighting tactic is just to delay. If I want to eat some chips, I’ll tell myself I can just have those later, like in an hour. Usually, I forget about it. If an hour later I still really want the chips, I’ll eat some and enjoy it, without feeling guilty. By telling myself I can have them later, I maintain the control. Sure, I could eat them now, but I’ll just wait until later. There’s nothing magic about those chips, they will still be there in an hour.

    I’m not perfect about practicing it, but that’s my system. It gets me over depriving myself and then succumbing to the “what the hell” effect, which was my basic problem prior to reading your book.

  7. frank says:

    Darya,
    So glad you’re in to Kelly McGonigal. Your readers may benefit from her TED talk last summer about the stress of stress and how it relates to weight management and mindfulness. Bottom line the people with the poorest physical outcomes to stress are those who ruminate, self criticize, judge etc. over their stress. It’s not the amount of stress you have. Learning curves to whatever you do are important, albeit stressful, to growth. i.e. an old skiing saying, If you’re not falling you’re not learning. This dovetails nicely with mindfulness practice. Life is a challenge all by itself. It’s not just that you’re getting it wrong and so practice loving kindness for yourself,your endeavors, and all beings.
    http://kellymcgonigal.com/tag/mindfulness/

  8. Lisa says:

    Hi Darya!

    I know that for me the challenge is understanding the difference between a craving and hunger. I now start by trying to recognize the difference. I think of a craving as the desire for something specific whereas hunger seems to be more physiologic. Offer me an apple when I’m having a craving for take out and bad things will happen. When I’m hungry I gobble veggies up like I’m at a hot dog eating contest. I call myself out when I want something specific–”Hey girl. Hey! You are craving that! You can have it, but I’m just saying”.

    I think it’s helped thus far. :)

  9. Dee says:

    Good article Darya

    My most severe food cravings are when I’m tired and need to Sleep -yes bring on the chocolate covered hazelnuts , chocolate cake etc etc

    I can’t surf urges, really need to practice -thanks for link

    I was thinking the other day that I should look for literal surfing lessons to really get the concept of ‘urge surfing’
    … So far I think the closest proxy , which is not voluntary practice , is enduring labour contraction pains – begging for epidural and wanting the baby to come out NOW… And eventually riding it out paleo – baby’s born – then the waves of contractions all forgotten …

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