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2. Coping with Urges

You are bound to have cravings and urges during your recovery process—this is to be expected. It happens to most people who are in recovery, so you should not regard cravings for your substance of choice or urges to use as signs of failure. Instead of beating yourself up every time you have the urge to drink or use again, try to gain some insight into your addiction. Use these moments to try and understand what triggers your cravings. Learn something from these moments so you can start to identify, and even anticipate, the triggers of your addiction.

Beliefs About Urges

It's likely that you've been feeding your urges for so long that you don't even think about them. They feel like they're part of who you are. You may hold beliefs about your urges that are unrealistic or untrue, and make them worse.

Here are some opposing beliefs about urges that may help you understand them:

Unrealistic: My urges are unbearable.

Realistic: Urges are uncomfortable, but you can bear them. If you keep telling yourself that you can't bear them, you're setting yourself up to use. Urges won't kill you or make you go crazy; they'll just make you uncomfortable.


Unrealistic: My urges only stop when I give in.

Realistic: Urges may last only a few 9econds or minutes, but rarely longer than ten or twenty minutes. Sometimes urges come in clusters of several shorter ones rather than one long urge.

Urges always go away. Here's why: Your nervous system eventually stops noticing stimuli. If it didn't, you couldn't wear clothing because it would be too uncomfortable. If you fast, you know hunger eventually fades away. The dentist-office smell that was so strong when you walked through the door isn't even noticeable by the time you leave.

You can teach yourself to ride out urges. It does get easier over time.


Unrealistic: My urges make me use.

Realistic: Using is always a choice. When an urge hits, you have two choices: to use or to ride it until it subsides.


Unrealistic: Urges are a sign that my addictive behaviour is getting worse.

Realistic: They're a normal part of recovery. They may be stronger at first - or maybe later in your recovery - but they weaken, and eventually disappear. You can have a life without urges.


Unrealistic: Giving in to an urge isn't harmful.

Realistic: Giving in to urges prolongs their presence in your life because it reinforces the behaviour pattern. It will make stopping harder as the next urge will likely come more quickly and be more intense.

Like the rash, if you scratch it occasionally but use healthy remedies the rest of the time, the occasional scratching still increases the healing time.

If you occasionally give in to your urges, you simply Prolong your dependence on the substance or behaviour as a way out when you believe the pain is unbearable.

What happens when a child nags for hours for a new toy and you say no until you tire of their whining and say yes just to get them to stop? You stop the immediate whining, but you teach the child that if they whine long enough, you'll give in. In the same way, you strengthen your urges every time you make the choice to give in to them, even if it's just occasionally.


Unrealistic: I must get rid of urges.

Realistic: Addictive behaviours trains your brain to 'want' you to keep repeating the behaviour, so urges are completely normal. The good news is that if you do not use, you will 're-train' your brain and the urges will fade away.

You can't control urges, but you can control how you respond to them.

It takes time and Practice to replace old thoughts and behaviours with new ones. Don't expect urges to end immediately, don't expect to be perfect, and don't give up.


Unrealistic: I'm self-destructive or I wouldn't do these self-destructive things.

Realistic: Our brains are hard-wired to seek out things that provide pleasure. Substances and behaviours that light up the pleasure centres in our brains can be destructive if the desire for them turns into a need. Oh, and as human beings, we all do stupid things.


Unrealistic: I use because I like to.

Realistic: While that was probably true in the beginning, it's probably more complicated than that now.

While using continues to light the pleasure centres in your brain, your rational brain can't ignore that the short term "Pleasures" are incompatible with your long-term goals. With more exploration, you will probably find that you have fallen into the "addictive behaviour trap," in which you ignore the benefits of stopping because you may be preoccupied with how difficult it will be.

SMART's tools and strategies give you an edge in dealing with your urges. The tools and strategies - along with your motivation - can make it possible for you to successfully cope with urges.

EXERCISE: Record Triggers, Urges & Cravings

The Nature of Urges
Remember that while urges to fall off the wagon can be very acute in the beginning of your recovery process; over time they will begin to diminish in intensity. You take a huge step forward in your recovery every time you defeat an urge to drink or use again. If you give in and “feed” an urge, be prepared for that urge to come back a bit stronger the next time. If you can resist “feeding” urges each time they come up, eventually they will subside.


Keep a Record of Your Triggers, Urges & Cravings

Many in recovery find it helpful to write down the circumstances of  Triggers, Urges or Cravings as they come up. What time of day did it hit you? What was the situation? Were you in a social setting, a work setting or alone? Where were you when the urge to use crept up on you? By keeping a record like this, you may begin to see a pattern emerge—a pattern of situations or circumstances that trigger your urge to feed your addiction.


Recording your Triggers, Urges & Cravings may be your first step to recognising the origins of your addiction, and that is the first step to finding other coping mechanisms. Give it a try. For the next week, make a daily record of urges to use drugs or alcohol, the intensity of those urges, and the coping behaviours you used.


A worksheet for this Tool can be found in The Recovery Tool Box

Urge Surfing: A Useful Technique

Many people in addiction recovery try to cope with their urges by gritting their teeth and toughing it out until the urge passes. Some urges, especially if and when you first return to your old using environment, are overwhelmingly strong. When this happens, it can be useful to stay with your urge to use until it passes.

This technique is called urge surfing. This metaphorical term may be used because the urges of addiction can feel like ocean waves. They start small, then grow larger and gather momentum, and finally they break on the rocks or crash on the shore and dissipate. You may find it helpful to use this metaphor as a way to get through your urges. You can imagine yourself as a surfer who will ride the wave, staying on top of it as it builds and gains momentum until it crests, breaks, and disperses into the harmless, foamy surf.

The basis of urge surfing is similar to that of many martial arts. You overpower an opponent by first going with the force of the attack. By joining with your opponent’s force, you can redirect it to your advantage. This type of technique to gain control by first going with the force or momentum of your opponent allows you to take control and also to conserve your energy. Urge surfing is similar.

The 3 Basic Steps of Urge Surfing:
  1. Take an inventory of how you experience the urge or craving. Sit in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in a comfortable position. Take a few deep breaths and focus inward. Allow your attention to wander through your body. Pay attention to where in your body you experience the craving and what the sensations are like. Notice each area where you experience the urge and tell yourself what you are experiencing. You might notice, “My craving is in my mouth and nose and in my stomach.”
  2. Focus on one area where you are experiencing the urge. Assess the exact sensations in that area of your body. Do you feel hot, cold, tingly, or numb? Are your muscles tense or relaxed? Describe the sensations to yourself and make note of any changes that occur in the sensations. Your inward observations may be, “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 taste of marijuana.”
  3. Assess each part of your body that experiences the craving. Pay attention to and describe to yourself the changes that occur in the sensations. Notice how the urge comes and goes. After a few more minutes of being attentive to your urge, you will likely find that it goes away.

Most people notice that after several minutes of urge surfing their craving vanishes. The purpose of this exercise, however, is not to make the craving go away but to experience the craving in a new way. If you practice urge surfing with each craving, you’ll become more familiar with them (and what triggered them), and you’ll learn how to ride them out until they go away easily. Most importantly, you will learn that you can ride them out.

EXERCISE: The 3 Questions

Your goal is to stop using or acting out. Your desire to change is your motivation to stop your addictive behaviour. It is sometimes hard to see a difference between what you are doing and what you could do differently to achieve your goals. This exercise can help you bring these two perspectives into focus so you can clearly see any discrepancy between them.


Ask Yourself These Questions:

  1. What do I want for my future?
  2. What am I currently doing to achieve that?
  3. How do I feel about what I'm currently doing?


An Example of Answers to These Questions:

  1. What do I want for my future? I want to remain clean and sober and enjoy life.
  2. What am I currently doing to achieve that? Drinking/Using and only thinking about change.
  3. How do I feel about what I'm currently doing? Guilty and Depressed .


Now, Answer the Follow-On Questions: 

  • What could I do differently to achieve the future I want?
  • How would changing what I do or getting what I want make me feel? 


Once you see the discrepancy between your feelings about what you're currently doing and your feelings about changing your behaviour, you can use that difference as further motivation to stop using.As you start to feel better about being abstinent, you feel more empowered to achieve your goal in #1: Be a good partner, parent, and employee.


A worksheet for this Exercise can be found in The Recovery Tool Box


Smartlife Sefton

Smartlife Sefton