One of the greatest triggers for relapse is what is commonly known as the “negative effect”, feelings of failure or bad moods that impair well-being. Urge surfing encourages people to be mindful and present with their discomfort, without being threatened or overwhelmed by it.
Urge surfing stems out of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Based on the assumption that an urge never lasts forever (no longer than 20 to 30 minutes), the aim is for an individual to “ride out” the urge simply by becoming more aware of its nature. The process begins with an individual acknowledging the sensation of a craving. Focus should then be entirely shifted where the exact sensations are being experienced in the body and their characteristics. The process should be repeated with each part of the body that experiences the craving, paying attention to each ‘wave.’ Lastly, tension should be released with each breath remaining in a meditative fashion till the craving diminishes.
Sarah Bowen, a research scientist in the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, conducted a study including participating smokers who wanted to quit. Each participant was accompanied by an unopened pack of their favorite brand of cigarettes.
Bowen instructed the smokers through each step from looking at the pack to opening it and holding, smelling and putting the cigarette in their mouths. She brought them to a point of bringing the lighter to the cigarette, but not igniting it. At every step, the participants were forced to stop and wait for several minutes.
Prior to the test, however, half of the smokers had received a brief training in the urge-surfing technique. Bowen explained to the smokers that urges always pass eventually, whether or not one gives in to them. When they felt a strong craving, they were told to imagine the urge as a wave in the ocean. It would build in intensity, but ultimately crash and dissolve. The smokers were to picture themselves riding the wave, not fighting it, but also not giving in to it. They were instructed to pay close attention to the urge to smoke, without trying to change it or get rid of it.
An hour and a half later, all the smokers were released from the test. They were not asked to reduce their cigarette consumption nor were they encouraged to use surfing-the-urge technique in everyday life. All they were asked to do was keep track of how many cigarettes they smoked each day for the following week, alongside keeping a record of their daily mood and urges to smoke.
There was no difference in the number of cigarettes smoked by the two groups in the first 24 hours. However, second day onwards, the surfing-the-urge group smoked fewer cigarettes. By the seventh day, even though the control group demonstrated no change, those surfing the urge had significantly cut back by 37 percent. Surprisingly, for smokers who had learned to surf the urge, stress no longer acted as a trigger for smoking.
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