We all have urges. To say things. To do things. To eat chocolate. Or cheese. Or broccoli. To have a glass of wine. Or La Croix. To jump off or on things. To pet a dog. To have sex. To smell flowers. To scream at someone who’s pissed us off. To throw up the middle finger in LA traffic…
C’mon, I can’t be the only one.
Urges in and of themselves aren’t good or bad. Urges are simply a signal from our bodies telling us we want to do something. That can be important information when it’s an urge we’d benefit from acting on. Like running away from a lion that wants us to be their dinner. Or telling our partner how much we love and appreciate them. Or to dance when our favorite song comes on.
However, when we mindlessly act on them, it can cause a lot of problems. We can make poor decisions. It can make people mad at us or learn to distrust us, which can harm our relationships. It can get in the way of our goals.
But it’s so hard not to act on them. Because an urge feels uncomfortable. Like if we don’t act on it right now we might just die.
I’m here to tell you that you won’t die if you don’t immediately act on an urge. Well, except if a lion wants to eat you for dinner. Or some similarly dangerous situation. Otherwise you’re good to go to sit with it for awhile.
Still, who wants to feel uncomfortable for any amount of time? We might not want to, but it’s healthy for us to learn delayed gratification. It’s also helpful in making wise decisions that are in line with our values and goals.
Since values and goals are different for everyone, mindfulness is a really important part of paying attention to our urges. For example, it might be okay for someone who only occasionally drinks alcohol to act on an urge to have a cocktail, but it could be devastating for a recovering alcoholic.
That’s why, as often as possible, we need to create some space between when we feel an urge and when we act on it. Even a few seconds can mean the difference between a choice we’re proud of and one we regret.
Here’s how to use mindfulness to surf urges much in the same way you’d surf waves:
Feel the Feels
We’ve been through this a million times. Take a few moments to notice where you experience the urges in your body. It might be a flutter in your stomach. It might be some tightness in your chest. It might be salivating in your mouth. It might be something completely different. There is no one way to experience an urge. What’s important is that you notice where in your body you notice urges when they show up. The more often you do this, the more often you’ll notice urges as they start.
Once you’ve noticed where in your body you’re feeling the urge, focus your attention on those physical sensations. Notice pressure, intensity, tingling, temperature, anything that’s different from how your body feels when it’s neutral. Some people can just notice this, but for others it may be helpful to silently describe the sensations in an objective and non-judgmental manner (e.g., I notice a fluttering in my belly).
Notice Your Breath
Simply focus on your breath as it moves in and out. You don’t have to change it. Just notice it. Notice how it feels to breath in and out of your nose (Or mouth if you’re a mouth breather.). Notice the rise and fall of your belly and the in and out movement in your chest.
Check Your Thoughts
Same as your body and breath, just notice them. Just like surfing a wave, try not to get crushed by them, but simply notice them and let them pass through, the same as waves do. Thoughts are simply thoughts. They might give us some important information or they might be a distraction. There’s no need to judge them, get caught up in them, or push them away. They’ll gently ebb and flow if we let them.
Use Your Imagination
Imagery can be really useful to some people. If that’s you, imagine that the physical sensations associated with your urge are a wave. Watch the wave rise and fall over and over again as the intensity of your sensations peak and subside. Use your breath as a surfboard to ride these waves. No matter how large the waves (urges) get, no matter how much it seems like the wave (urge) will consume you, you’re a skilled surfer and you will use your breath to ride each wave as it comes.
Next thing you know, the urge will have subsided enough to make a wise decision for yourself. It might be to act on that urge if you know that’s the right thing to do for you. It might be the decision not to act on it. Either way, you learn that not every urge has to be acted upon and mindfully making that decision will help train your mind to act similarly in the future.
Sure, immediately reacting to urges might be more exciting, but not all drama is fun and the excitement rarely lasts or turns into anything fulfilling. It usually just creates a stressful mess. Making conscious choices is far more rewarding. Go get your kicks from actual surfing (Or other healthy, adrenaline boosting activity.) if you need some thrills in your life.