One of the key skills in overcoming compulsive habits like substance abuse, smoking, gambling, overeating and so on is to recognize and resist urges.
We often have distorted, unrealistic beliefs about urges. Some common misperceptions about urges, and their rational counterpoints are:
Š Urges are excruciating or unbearable. vs. They are uncomfortable, but not unbearable.
Š Urges are constant. vs. Urges are time limited. They will pass.
Š Urges force one to use or act. vs. I choose to act on the urge. There are many urges I do not act on and I can resist any urge, no matter how strong it is.
Š I’ll go crazy if I don’t give in. vs. I haven’t yet and won’t. Actually, I will be more emotionally and physically healthy by learning to resist urges.
If you have been using heavily, you may experience strong urges the first few days or even weeks after quitting. They may even grow stronger for awhile or flare up from time to time. However, they will eventually weaken and fade away, but not necessarily go away altogether. How long it takes varies, of course, but most people find that their urges are not so bothersome within a few months to a year of quitting. Obviously, it is crucial to learn how to recognize and resist your urges to use.
To help you become more aware of your urges and develop specific strategies for resisting them, it is useful to keep a log or record of your urges.
Whenever you feel the urge to engage in your compulsive habit, write down when it happened, what was going on, what emotions you were experiencing, how strong the urge was (on a one to ten scale), how long it lasted, what thoughts were going through your mind when you had the urge, and how you reacted to the urge.
Š Just accepting the urge can help. It’s okay to have urges - everybody does.
It’s what you do with the urge that counts.
Š Ignore the urge. Keep it at a distance, like a thought going in one ear and out the other.
Š Detach yourself from the urge. Think of the urge as “it” and study it. What does it feel like?
Š Rate the urge. How strong is it on a one to ten scale? Are you exaggerating? Compare the discomfort or resisting the urge to other
possible discomforts, like being boiled alive in oil or having your fingernails pulled out one at a time.
Š Distract yourself. Do something. Go out. Call someone. Get absorbed in a task. Exercise. -----Remind yourself of the benefits of resisting and the long term costs of giving in.
Š Remember a “moment of clarity” when you realized your habit is a problem. Try relaxing yourself by imagining a peaceful scene.
Š Visualize yourself in the near future feeling good about having resisted the urge. Paint a mental picture of how badly you will feel if you give in, like a scene with you hugging the toilet bowl with the title, “Drinking is Fun”.
Š Remind yourself that the urge will pass. Think about other urges you have that you routinely resist. How do you do that? Develop coping statements, thoughts that counter urge causing ideas. For example, if you are thinking, “I deserve a drink,” try telling yourself, “Even though it seems unfair that I have this problem, drinking is not a wise choice for me.
After you begin to develop some mastery of your urges, you may want to confront them rather than just waiting until they happen. There are many ways to do this.
For example, try visualizing a situation in the past where you had a strong urge, as if you are running a videotape in your head. At first, allow yourself to feel the urge and react as you did. Then run the tape again and without changing anything, force yourself to see yourself resisting the urge. Practice this repeatedly until you get a feel for how you can do it. This is like “instant replay”. Mentally “rehearse” a situation that might happen in the future doing the same “switching” of your feelings and reactions.
Try to make yourself have an urge, as for example in thinking about your “drug of choice”. This will probably be less intense and more “controlled”, so it will give you a chance to practice, like practicing all week before the big game on the weekend.
Put yourself in situations where there might be temptations that create urges, like going to a bar or party. This may not be wise until you have developed some confidence in your urge resisting skills!
Practice, Practice, Practice
Copyright © 1995, Robert F. Sarmiento, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved