Riding the wave

Urge surfing

Often when we are trying to break a habit we find that we experience urges – thoughts which seem to try to persuade us to engage in the exact behaviour we are trying to avoid.
People with gambling problems often report feeling the ‘urge’ to gamble with thoughts such as “I’ll just have a quick bet” or “I just have to put $10.00 in”. These thoughts can be difficult to resist and can lead to relapse.

These thoughts and feelings can be unpleasant and even frightening for those who experience them as they feel they have no choice but to bend to the urge and gamble. However, there are strategies that can help you prepare for and manage these urges when they occur.

A useful mindfulness strategy is ‘urge surfing’. Urge surfing is based on the idea that fighting against urges or cravings actually increases their strength, and that a much more effective way to deal with these urges is to ‘ride out’ or ‘surf’ these urges. The effectiveness of this strategy is based on the understanding that all urges are temporary, that with time they will pass. During this exercise, it is important that noticing the urge is non-judgemental, that is, not thinking about your thoughts as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but simply just noticing these thoughts and feelings.

The first step of urge surfing is to sit quietly and simply notice the urge, that is, pay attention to the thoughts you are having ask yourself – what is the content of this thought? What is this thought urging me to do?

Then notice where in your body you feel this urge – is it in your stomach? Or your chest? Once you have found where in your body you are experiencing the urge, pay attention to the sensations you are having. Is it a tightening in your stomach, or a slight racing of your heart? Do the sensations feel like pressure, tingling, warmth or coldness? It may be useful to think of the sensations in terms of colours or temperature.

Following this, bring your attention to your breathing – notice each breath in and out – what does the breath feel like? Is it warm or cold? Continue this for 5 minutes. You may notice that your thoughts return to the urge or drift to other thoughts, simply notice this and bring your thoughts back to your breathing, focusing on inhaling and exhaling.

It may be useful to visualise yourself riding a wave – continue the exercise until you feel the sensations in your body decreasing or becoming less intense.

The more you practice urge surfing, the easier this exercise will become and the more aware of your urges and the sensations that accompany them you will be. Urge surfing may be a useful strategy in breaking the habit of problem gambling and increasing your chances of overcoming problem gambling.

If you need help to manage your gambling, free and confidential support and treatment is available through Gambling Help. Call 1800 858 858 to speak with a counsellor at any time, or visit www.gamblinghelp.nsw.gov.au to find your nearest face-to-face counselling service in NSW.

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