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A Mindful Way to Working with Addictive Behaviors

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

alcoholWhether our addictions have to do with alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling, emailing, the recent political drama, or shopping, the addictive behavior is often preceded by some triggering event that sets off a flurry of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations, leading to cravings and urges to engage in the addictive behavior. An important part of recovery is being able to recognize our triggers and how cravings and urges manifest in our bodies and minds. Often, cravings and urges are our longing for things to be different than the way they are in the moment. The late Dr. Alan Marlatt, past Director of the Addictive Behavior Research Center at the University of Washington, defined a craving as the desire to experience the effects of engaging in the addictive behavior, while an urge is a relatively sudden impulse to engage in an act such as drinking, shopping, emailing, or gambling - aka, feeling the high.

Urges and cravings often feel like they strike without warning, but we can develop sensitivity to the internal and external cues and an openness to the present-moment experience that counteracts our addictive behaviors. 

Dr. Marlatt proposes a few ways urges and cravings can be triggered:

  1. The first is through a lack of insight into the body-feeling state such as sadness, anxiety, or guilt that manifest as physical sensations in the body. 
  2. The second is through defensive and distorted styles of thinking, such as denial, rumination, or catastrophizing. 
  3. The third is through our automatic negative interpretations of events, such as attributing a relapse to personal weakness or failure.

In the following practice, we are not trying to get rid of or avoid these difficult experiences, but instead instill an openness and curiosity about them, learning how to acknowledge them and relate to them differently, breaking the cycle of relapse. 

In concert with the fundamental principle of impermanence found in mindfulness meditation literature, Dr. Marlatt developed a technique called "urge surfing" which uses mindfulness and breath-focused meditation to help us ride out the urge. An urge to engage in an addictive behavior can be seen as an ocean wave in that it starts small, gets bigger, crests, and finally subsides. Urge surfing teaches us to use the focus of our breath as a "surfboard" for riding the wave of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations rather than struggling or giving in to it. Although ideally it is best to be guided through this, here are a few steps you can try to get started:

  1. First do a brief practice where you sit, stand, or lie down and notice your breath coming in and out of your body. You can think of it as keeping your breath company.This is good initial practice so when an urge comes you'll be more likely to remember to do this.
  2. As you have the urge, bring awareness to the breath and let it surf the wave of the sensations associated with the urge (e.g., rapid breathing, sweating, salivating, tightening of the muscles, or constriction of the chest). Noticing the physical sensation of the impulse as it changes and intensifies in the body. 
  3. Be aware of any thoughts that arise in the mind and also be aware how they come and go as well. 
  4. Many people can testify to the idea that an intense urge only lasts about 20-30 minutes, so notice the urge as it eventually falls like a wave in the ocean. 

If you've been struggling with a deep rooted addictive behavior for a while, notice if any judgments come up for you when reading this (e.g., "I've tried everything, this will never work for me, I can't help myself, no one can help me). Try to notice this as just a thought in the mind, let it be, and bring yourself back to the practice.

Sometimes it helps to be guided by a live person or a CD, but this is a good start. May you become less reactive to your cravings and urges and become a master of your own mind instead of your mind being master over you.

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