An urge is a feeling you have to do something “urgently” in order to calm the desires of your primitive brain, which is wired for seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, or trying to expend the least amount of energy as possible. In today’s environment where we are not exactly surviving in the wild, the whims of our primitive brain sometimes get in the way of our long term results or the life we want to live. We must learn how to manage and supervise our brain activity (our mind) if we want to create the life of our dreams. And that includes what we do about URGES!
Intense urges seem to come on very quickly, usually in times when you are trying to avoid a negative emotion and/or you are looking for something with a quick reward (instant gratification or pleasure). Your primitive brain is wired for this. So nothing has gone wrong when you have an urge. When it becomes a problem is when we don’t feel like we have any control over it and we are constantly reacting to the urge by giving in, which may be sabotaging our long term results. The more we give into the urges, the more the brain thinks this is the normal course of action. It will put the entire process into “default” mode and become super efficient at it. The brain knows that it will get a dopamine hit when you eat that cupcake and it will think that it is super important for survival. The primitive brain does not know or care that this is causing weight gain and you are trying to lose 10 lbs. But what if you don’t want this in your life and it is preventing you from attaining your long term goals? Then you must learn the skill of ALLOWING & RESPONDING DELIBERATELY to the urge versus indulging in it. And you can only do that by using your prefrontal cortex for some serious thought work, deliberate responding, and practicing a new skill.
How does one go about this Allowing & Responding? First of all, you have to increase your awareness of the urges you react to. I will use eating as an example in this post, but you can switch it out with smoking, drinking, procrastinating, facebooking, checking your phone, shopping, or any other habit that you are seriously wanting to change that is not serving you. Anything that you are “over-ing” that is not creating the result you want would be a great fit. Or any habit you do that you feel like you don’t have any control over.
#1) Write out the habit that you are doing now that is driven by urges. Since we are creatures of habit, you might have a certain time of day you have urges or while doing certain activities (television, sporting event, work, after the gym, etc.). Get very honest with yourself and write out the scenarios where you see yourself indulging in urges. For instance, I had a habit of eating salty cracker-y/chippy things when I got home from work after a stressful day. I was usually super hungry by that time of day and I wanted to come inside, drop off my bags, and go to the pantry- it felt so urgent, like I was going to die if I didn’t eat right away! I would open a box or bag of salty snacks while I started to make dinner and I was eating them the whole time I was cooking. Sometimes it would be enough to make me full, but since I had made a wonderful dinner, I ate that as well. This habit lead to some extra pounds and I knew I wanted to stop doing it, but it was becoming an automatic response when I came home.
#2) Now that you have written out the circumstances of your habit, lets take a look at it with curiosity, not judgement, and answer some questions. What are you thinking about before the urge kicks in? Are you having a negative emotion, such as stress? And then how does the urge feel? What does it feel like in your body? What do you think it would feel like if you did not react to it? What results is it creating in your life? Do you want those results?
Awareness is everything. You must be aware of how you are thinking, feeling, and acting in order to live a deliberate life. So really take the time to go through this process of awareness FIRST before trying to change the action. Many people try forcing themselves into different actions before doing the work of figuring out what thoughts and feelings are running around in their brain. They try to use willpower to drive their actions and willpower will feel draining and non-sustainable. When you implement steps to avoid or resist urges, they will only feel bigger.
#3) Equipped with awareness, you can now move on to learning the skill of ALLOWING an urge. Right before you have an urge, you will have a thought, such as “It’s just this once”, “I deserve this”, “This will feel so satisfying”, “I need this after my hard day”, etc. These little tricky thoughts let down your guard and you create the urge feeling or desire for that instant gratification. Now, in the past, you have reacted to this urge, but here’s where you can start to break that loop. You can ALLOW an urge by acknowledging it without reacting to it. You notice that tricky thought, you notice the feeling of an urge, you notice how that feels in your body, and you tell that urge that its OK without reacting to it. You let it be there. No resistance. It’s allowed to be a part of your moment. And you envision it also leaving your body when you are ready. You can release it.
Allowing urges will get easier with time. A fun way to manage this process is by creating an urge jar, where you get to put in a glass bead for every urge that you allowed without reacting to. Or you can create an urge chart with 100 boxes on it and you get a star in the box when you allow an urge. After allowing 100 urges you will be in a very different place than before this process, I guarantee it!
When those little tricky thoughts come up again, remember that nothing has gone wrong. If you can look at your own life without judgement, then nothing is “good” or “bad”, it just is and you are just figuring out what is working or not working, what is serving or not serving you in your life. Getting good at allowing urges will take some time, just like any new skill that you learning. Practice, practice, practice. You get good at what you practice. And luckily it will get easier as you are training your brain that you are not reacting to its primitive ideas.
So go out there and practice allowing urges!