As I write this post I’m experiencing a craving. Over the last few months I have, from time to time, taken to smoking a cigarette or two ( gasp!) I know. Namely when I’m with drunk people, trying to write something or celebrating having written it!
The feelings and thoughts about smoking are exactly the same as the ones I used to have about drinking ( and sometimes still do) and they are very very uncomfortable both physically and mentally.
So how does it look?
Here's a moment to moment look at the 'craving wave'.
My entire being is geared up, in need of some kind of release.
My mind is fixated. I can’t think of anything else except the sweet relief of that first inhalation when everything will feel OK again.
Physically I feel restrained, constricted, like I want to burst out of my skin. I need something, anything, to stop these feelings.
At first I rationalise. I’ll just have one, that’ll be it, and I feel resolved, it'll be Ok, just this once. But this is closely followed by disappointed ( which ends up eventually being my best friend in these moments). However before it has it's final say I have to go through the self-flagellation. “What am I doing to myself and my body?” “Have I no self control?” “ It’s just so depressing, here I go again. Pathetic, addicted me”.
This fun game then provides a nice segue into rationalising my behaviour again, after all, I’m just a failure, a quitter, and I have an addictive personality so bugger it, might as well give in…just this once, one more time. One day soon I’ll be in complete control, once this page is finished, once my site it complete, once my life is perfect.
Sometimes cravings can bring me to tears. I remember many years ago in a hotel room in Dubai on my way home to the UK for a visit. I had read Allen Carrs 'Easy Way to Quit Smoking' on the first leg and it was game on! I would never smoke again, ever, it was easy and I’d been shown the easy way!
One hour later I was sitting on the floor in the room crying while I sucked on a cigarette and a huge dose of self-hatred. This moment is still crystal clear in my mind 18 years on. That sense of failure, lack of control and weakness. Allen spoke so much sense, how could I not get it? I must be dumb, a useless idiot with a mission to self-destruct, so better light-up and make it all go away…for a while.
I have lived these thoughts & feelings over and over again almost every time I’ve given in to cravings. And all they do is just help fuel the self-critical fire to do it all over again.
So back to the current craving. It’s still here, a bit. But my rationalisation has morphed into the friendly but stern voice of disappointment. And disappointment in myself is worse than anything else. Because letting myself down is no longer an option.
So as I write, with every minute, this craving becomes a little less uncomfortable, less pressing. I have sat through the physical discomfort, I have articulated what’s going on in my head and I have survived. I am alive. I did not smoke. And I don’t want to anymore. I am un-stuck.
The process above is my experience of what is often referred to as urge surfing. And, as there are a hundred ways to skin a cat, there are as many, if not more to surf your urges.
Mine involves riding the wave with complete awareness of everything that’s going on. The feelings in my body, the thoughts and emotions. And whilst it may sound like it takes a while the initial wave is only seconds….because now I see it coming and I’m ready to ride it, quickly.
Sometimes the urge only lasts minutes, other times it comes and goes, just like the waves, and I have to balance for a while longer. Overall, I have found, through numerous experiments, that 20 minutes and a healthy dose of distraction work every time. If I can just remember this, every time, I’m good.
Like anything hard, (and surfing is most definitely almost impossible, I have tried and failed miserably) this urge surfing takes practice, and lots of it. In the same way that you start by getting to your knees on a wave far too big and wiping out, be prepared for this to happen with cravings. Once you get to your feet and conquer your first wave every one after gets a little easier. You’ve done it before, you can do it again & again & again. The cravings & urges may never completely go away but trust me, they just get easier to ride over time.
Here’s a simple 3 step process from Helpguide.org that you can try out, if you fancy giving it a go.
The three basic steps of urge surfing:
1. Assess how you’re experiencing the craving. Sit in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in a relaxed position. Take a few deep breaths and focus your attention inward. Allow your attention to wander through your body. Notice the part of your body where you’re experiencing the craving and what the sensations are like. Tell yourself what it feels like. For example, “My craving is in my mouth and nose and in my stomach.”
2. Focus on one area where you’re experiencing the urge. How do the sensations in that area feel. For example, perhaps you feel hot, cold, tingly, or numb? Are your muscles tense or relaxed? How large an area is involved? Describe the sensations to yourself and any changes that occur. “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 tingle of a drink.”
3. Repeat on each part of your body that’s experiencing the craving. What changes occur in the sensations? Notice how the urge comes and goes. You’ll likely notice that after a few minutes the craving has gone. The purpose of urge surfing is not to make cravings disappear, but to experience them in a new way. However, with practice, you’ll learn how to ride your cravings out until they go away naturally.