Got Cravings? Urge Surfing Can Help

urge surfing man on surfboard on ocean

Kim Yawitz, RD

Have you ever had a craving that was SO INTENSE you could barely think of anything else, only to realize a bit later that you’d kinda forgotten about it? We should all be so lucky when evil food cravings strike, but a skill called urge surfing can help you to ride out the craving.

In this post, I’m going to explain what urge surfing is and how to do it, so that you can add it to your bag of healthy eating tricks. 

Cravings are Like Waves

It’s helpful to think of cravings like ocean waves. Waves in the ocean are triggered (mostly) by wind and gravitational forces. A wave gets bigger as it generates momentum, reaches a peak, and then falls.

diagram of a wave to depict urge surfing

The same goes for food cravings. Cravings start with a trigger, like stress or an environmental signal (say, the smell of cookies baking in the oven).

Once a craving is triggered, it builds in intensity. This is when the urge to eat a food becomes more and more intense. The craving reaches its peak (often after about 15-20 minutes), and then it goes away.

What is Urge Surfing?

Urge surfing is a mindfulness practice that was first described by Alan Marlatt, Ph.D., a leading psychologist in the field of addiction.

The basic idea is this: You can feel powerless when cravings hit, just as you would if you were swimming in big waves. Or, you can learn to surf the wave and ride it out gently into the shore.

This takes a little bit of practice, just as learning to surf in the ocean would. You will sometimes fall off the board, so to speak, and that’s okay!

You will absolutely get more resilient to your cravings the more you practice urge surfing, as long as you keep putting in the reps.

How to Practice Urge Surfing

Ready to stop food cravings in their tracks (or, in keeping with our ocean theme, send them crashing to the shore)?

Here’s what to do the next time a craving strikes.

First, remain calm and curious. Tune in to how you’re feeling, both physically and emotionally. Can you feel any tension in your body? Are you experiencing stress, panic, anxiety, or some other negative emotion?

Name your feelings, but do it objectively and non-judgmentally.

Second, breathe. Marlatt described the breath in urge surfing as the surfboard. Your breath is your vehicle for riding out the wave, and your strategy is slow and low. Breathe in and out through the nose, all the way into the belly, taking at least 5 seconds per inhale and exhale.

Things may get a little hairy as you approach the peak of the craving. Hang in there. You’re almost through it!

Once you get through the craving, take a moment pat yourself on the back. Urge surfing isn’t easy, but the more you ride the wave, the more you strip cravings of their power.

Now, you might be asking yourself, “couldn’t I just distract myself for 20 minutes instead, until the urge passes?” Technically, yes–distraction can help you to get through a craving. But learning to sit with your cravings and ride them out is a better long-term strategy, because it teaches you to deal with cravings directly.

If you want to take this a step further, you can do what I do with my nutrition coaching clients. Identify the triggers for your food cravings, put proactive strategies (like daily stress relief, a good sleep routine, and balanced meals and snacks) in place to decrease their frequency, and then use urge surfing when you do have a craving.

Try this out the next time you’re craving junk food, and let me know how it goes!

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