There are various strategies that can help people overcome addictive behaviour. Some of them have weird and wonderful names such as ‘urge surfing’ or (the less snappy) ‘managing permission giving thoughts’. Getting to grips with this new language isn’t the hard part, applying the strategies is. It can be beneficial to seek help from an experienced therapist to help make the changes.
In order to start working on addiction it is important to first understand what it is. People can become addicted to substances such as alcohol or drugs or activities such as gambling or computer-gaming. These things can be pleasant and sociable. They also might alleviate stress, help you manage intense emotions or provide a distraction from difficult situations that you are dealing with. All of these factors can lead to the addictive behaviour being strongly reinforced. For instance, if you drink alcohol after a hard day at work and you rapidly feel calmer then the next time you have a difficult time in your job you are more likely to pop the cork on the wine bottle.
For some the repeated use of substances or activities to cope with life’s strains can become more problematic. People might find that they are more pre-occupied with engaging in the behaviour, there might be a steady increase in how often they indulge and previous limits around the behaviour can start to erode (e.g. replacing sleep with computer-gaming, using drugs earlier in the day than before). Ultimately, the behaviour can become compelling and impossible to resist. In relation to substance use one might experience an increase in tolerance and this can lead to physical dependence on the substance. This means that when an attempt to stop using the substance is made the person will experience withdrawal symptoms. For certain substance dependency it is necessary to seek help from a medical professional who can help monitor and manage these withdrawal symptoms.
If the use of substances or certain activities has become a compulsion and difficult to abstain from then it is likely that some psychological dependence has been fostered. Over time this can start to have negative consequences. People that have been through this struggle will describe it impacting on their work, their relationships, their self-view and their overall satisfaction with life. The impact in these different life areas can vary and at worst can include life changing results such as the loss of a job or a relationship. It is important to remember that however the addiction is affecting one’s life it is always possible to access help to overcome it.
So back to ‘urge surfing’. Therapy will help a person to assess their addiction and work out the origins; how it might have become a coping strategy. There will be a strong focus on motivation which will help when commitment to giving up the behaviour wavers. There might be some small, but important, practical steps such as changing the route home (to avoid triggers such as the local pub), deleting the number of a dealer, temporarily disconnecting the internet and so on. Ultimately the time will come to start reducing the behaviour and working towards stopping it altogether. This is the point at which learning new coping strategies is key. In all likelihood there will have been an internal dialogue keeping the behaviour going e.g., ‘I’ll give up tomorrow’, ‘you’ve had a hard day you deserve it’, ‘just one more…’. These are thoughts that give a person permission to use alcohol, drugs, gambling, gaming etc. They are also the thoughts that the person will need to learn to manage, let go of, or challenge. The other thing they can be taught is how to cope with the intense physiological arousal that they are likely to experience when they attempt to stop using an addictive behaviour. There are range of things that might enable them to manage this, such as substituting the behaviour with something that is healthier, doing something self-soothing or using mindfulness meditation until the tension reduces. These are all forms of ‘urge surfing’. The more often the person is able to surf the urge the more likely the feelings of agitation will dwindle allowing them to overcome their addiction.
Through understanding the origins of the addictive behaviour and using a combination of these techniques to build your emotional resilience it becomes possible to lead a more fulfilling, addiction-free life.