Surfing the Urge: How mindfulness meditation can help you lose weight

What’s the one thing that all people who try and fail to lose weight have in common? It’s that they gave in to a craving. People struggle with weight loss programs over the long term because they do not know how to deal with cravings. However, it’s a skill you can learn.

What is a craving?

If you are craving food, you usually experience two things:

•   Thoughts about consuming food

•   Unpleasant sensations in the body

When people experience cravings, they usually try to resist and fight them head-on. Psychologists call this “thought suppression,” and it is actually a poor strategy, because when you try to block a thought, you only make it stronger.

As well as resisting the thoughts, you also resist the unpleasant sensations in your body, that is, the “feeling” of the craving. Again though, by resisting these sensations you make them stronger.

So, cravings can lead you to food, but resisting cravings makes them stronger. What are you supposed to do then? The answer, paradoxically, is to accept the cravings.

Surfing the Urge

“Urge surfing” is a technique based on mindfulness meditation that teaches you to observe the experience of a craving without reacting to it. Urge surfing is based on two principles:

1. Cravings are not permanent

2. Acceptance of cravings makes them weaker

Accepting a craving does not mean giving in to it. It means you allow it to be there, in your body. If you’re on a long-term weight loss program, you will feel cravings often. Cravings may feel unpleasant. You have to accept them, and allow them to be there without obeying them.

Non-judgemental awareness

The feeling of a craving has two layers. The first layer is the craving as it arises naturally in your body. The second layer is a feeling caused by your response to the first layer. If your response is resistance, that is, if you tell yourself this is horrible and unbearable, while tightening your body and scrunching up your face, you will make the feelings in the second layer more unpleasant.

The mindful approach is to observe the craving in a non-judgemental, objective manner. Instead of thinking of it as good or bad, you just experience what it is.  If you can remain in this state you will remove the second layer altogether, and find that the first layer starts to get weaker.

Within around 20 minutes of this non-judgemental observation, you should feel that the craving has subsided substantially — perhaps even completely. This is called “urge surfing” — you simply ride the wave until it passes. And it will.

How to Urge Surf

Then next time you feel a craving, start a timer, and follow these steps:

1. Prepare to surf. Sit or lie down somewhere comfortable and settle in. Take a few slow, deep breaths. Relax your jaw, relax your neck and relax your shoulders. Close your eyes.

2. Rate your urge. Bring your attention to the sensations in your body. How strong would you say your urge is right now? Rate it from 1 (very weak) to 10 (very strong).

3. Bring your attention to your breathing. You can either put your attention on the nose and nostrils or the stomach area. Don’t regulate or control your breathing — let your body breathe however it wants, and just observe it. Try to follow a whole breath from start to finish. If you notice your mind has wandered, bring it back to the breath. Continue for five minutes. 

4. Locate the craving. Move your awareness through the different parts of your body, trying to locate the craving. It might be in more than one place. Stay relaxed, stay calm.

5. Observe the craving. Observe the sensations caused by the craving. What form do they take? Do they tingle? Are they dull? Are they continuous? Do they pulsate? Can you feel their temperature? Don’t judge them as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. Don’t try to make the sensations go away. Just investigate the experience — whatever you feel, allow it to be there. As with the breathing, when your mind wanders, bring it back to your sensations.

6. Keep going. Continue to observe the craving, but also move your attention around your body occasionally, seeing what other sensations you feel in different areas. Whatever you find, pleasant or unpleasant, observe it non-judgmentally. Continue for 15 minutes — it’s OK to do less at first but try to build up the time. 

7. Rate your urge again. Use the same 1-10 scale. You should find that the urge has weakened.

Does urge surfing work?

Yes! Numerous research studies have demonstrated that urge surfing helps reduce cravings, even for addictive substances like alcohol and recreational drugs.

The key point to remember is that although urge surfing is simple, it is not easy.  It will take practice at first, but the more you practice, the better you will get. While urge surfing should not be the only tool in your toolbox, it is a powerful weapon to help you deal with cravings when they arise.

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