How to Cope With Addictions Mindfully

Transform bad habits into healthy choices with these strategies
November 2, 2020 Updated: November 2, 2020

Despite our best intentions, it’s often painful and difficult to change our habits, addictions, and strong urges.

The things we want to quit and the urges we want to overcome can span a wide gamut, from drugs and alcohol to online shopping and nail-biting.

Not all the things want to quit are horrible, but any can easily be taken to excess. Many of us would like to have more control in certain areas but find our urges difficult to resist.

So how can we find success with real, lasting change? I’ve found that it takes a combination of mindfulness and behavior-changing strategies. The following is a multipronged approach to changing unwanted urges and addictions.

Urge Surfing

A mindfulness technique that has proven effective for dealing with addictions is called “urge surfing,” a widely used technique developed by psychologist and addictions pioneer Alan Marlatt.

It’s something that helped me quit smoking cigarettes more than a decade ago, and I’ve used it many times since then.

Here’s how to practice it:

  1. Notice when you have an urge. Pause instead of acting on it, and just sit with it mindfully.
  2. Notice where the physical sensation of the urge is located. Is it in your stomach? Chest? Mouth? Focus on that area of your body and try to mindfully observe the sensations you feel.
  3. Allow the sensations to rise and peak then crest and subside. Just watch them, as if you’re watching a wave. It’s not anything to panic about, it’s just a sensation of rising and falling. You can do this for a minute or two, or even longer. After the urge subsides, it might come back, and then you can repeat the exercise.

Why this works: We interrupt the part of our brain that just acts on urges automatically and shift to a new part of our brain. This pattern interruption is crucial to dealing with urges. We also learn that the urge isn’t a command, but rather an interesting sensation that we can distance ourselves from.

Change the Environment

Another strategy that works incredibly well is changing your environment. There are several ways to achieve this:

  1. Remove temptations from your environment. When I wanted to change my diet, I tossed out all junk food. Keeping temptations around makes it a lot harder to be successful—willpower only goes so far.
  2. Remove yourself from the environment. Don’t go into your office kitchen area if you want to avoid the snacks, for example. At an office party, you can move away from the cake area.
  3. Change the environment. Set up the environment so that you’re less likely to give in to temptation. For example, at a burger restaurant, I might tell my kids that I’ll give them $20 if they see me eat a french fry. I never eat fries when I do this. Telling other people about your intentions to change can also make you more accountable.

Why this works: If there aren’t any temptations around, or they’re hard to get to, the urges are much weaker. Seeing cake in front of you, or being around people smoking or drinking makes you much more likely to want those things too. If we can engineer our environment to mitigate temptations, we’ll have fewer urges to deal with, and the sense of control can motivate us further.

Coping Abilities

Addictions are often our way of coping with stress, pain, or other difficulties. If we get into an argument with our spouse, lose a loved one, get yelled at by our boss—whatever it is—we may need a way to cope.

Over the years, we learned to use the addiction as a coping mechanism; when the stress comes up, we get a strong urge to indulge. So when we try to quit an addiction and stress comes up, we need a new healthier coping mechanism to deal with it. We need to start replacing the old habit with the new coping mechanism.

Here are some examples of healthy coping activities:

  • Meditation
  • Going for a walk, a run, or playing sports
  • Talking to someone
  • Taking a bath
  • Having tea
  • Doing yoga

Pick one, and try to do it whenever you have a stressful experience. Soon you’ll have a healthier way to cope.

Why this works: If you put another coping mechanism in place, you’ll need your addiction less, and the urges will be weaker over time.

Raise Your Emotional Baseline

When we’re tired, depressed, or lonely, we just don’t have the willpower or emotional baseline to deal with stress, urges, and addictions. We’ll give in and forget about changing our environment or trying a new coping mechanism—nothing seems to matter.

So, here’s a few ways to raise your baseline:

  1. Get adequate sleep and rest. Make this a priority, or none of the other efforts will matter. Shut off devices at a certain time each night, write out your to-do list for tomorrow, brush and floss, and then meditate before going to sleep.
  2. Get some support. Find friends you can talk to, professional support, or a support group online. Lean on them; talk about your difficulties and listen to them in return. Creating this kind of connection means you’re less likely to feel isolated.
  3. Deal with feelings of depression, loneliness, and sadness. Solutions to these feelings is a whole book in itself, so I won’t cover them here. But if you’re not emotionally healthy, the addictions are much more likely to stick around (or relapse). Make working on your emotional health a priority. A great way to start is to get adequate sleep and find support and healthier coping mechanisms.

Why this works: Increasing your emotional baseline means you’re going to be stronger and more resilient when dealing with your urges.

Putting It All Together

With all of that in mind, here’s a simple plan you can experiment with. Each week, pick one or two of these to focus on:

  1. Get good sleep. Make it a priority.
  2. Get support. Friends, online support groups, local support groups, professional help—whatever works best for you.
  3. Practice ‘surfing the urges.’ You don’t have to be perfect at this, just practice.
  4. Change your environment. Toss out the stuff that makes you tempted, or remove yourself from tempting environments.
  5. Work on your emotional health. A gratitude practice is a good start for many people, though professional help might be recommended for some.
  6. Pick another coping strategy. Choose a few to try out: deep breathing, yoga, meditation, going for a walk, talking to someone, hot tea, self-massage. Experiment with these and other healthy activities to see what works best for you.
  7. Find your weak points. Change the environment to mitigate your weaknesses, or create a strategy to deal with them. For example, can you enlist the help of others to stop you from giving in to temptation?

Again, don’t worry about doing this all at once. Pick a few each week and work on them, then try others the next week, and so on. Revisit ones that need more practice or fine-tuning. Look at this as a learning exercise where you’re not going to just quit a habit overnight, but get better and better at dealing with the urges and addiction over time.

You can rest assured—success is possible. Especially once you realize how much damage these habits and addictions can cause you in life. Your effort to change these and stop hurting yourself is a truly loving thing.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books and the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers. Visit ZenHabits.net