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Changing Habits: Learning to Cope with the Urges

Coping with urges smokingAdapted from Pages 32 and 34 of the SMART Recovery Handbook, 3rd Edition

This post has been updated from the original version that first ran in 2015.

With so many people on day two of their 2018 New Year’s resolutions, it seems appropriate to offer some basic strategies for coping with urges that tempt us to give into habits. Whether you’re trying to stop drinking, quit smoking, eat better, spend less, or change any other unwanted behavior, here are 14 basic strategies designed to help you cope with the urges in the days, weeks, months (and sometimes even years) ahead!

  1. Avoid – Learn what triggers your desire to act on your habit, and avoid the triggers that lead to urges.
  2. Escape – If you are presented with a trigger, escape immediately.
  3. Distract Yourself – Try not to focus on the urge. Remember that urges are time-limited, and if you can find something to distract yourself during the urge, it will eventually subside.
  4. Develop Coping Statements – For example, instead of telling yourself that you deserve to, say, have a drink at the end of a stressful day, tell yourself, “I don’t need to drink because of a stressful day. In fact, the reality is, drinking will likely add more stress.”
  5. Review the costs/benefits of giving into your habit. Reminding yourself what it would cost to give in may help you maintain your motivation.
  6. Rate Your Urge – Honestly rate the intensity of your urges in a log. Doing so will help you assess the severity of your urge(s) and determine whether there is a change over time. Also, the act of updating a log offers a distraction (see strategy #3).
  7. Recall Moments of Clarity – Think back to a moment when you absolutely knew it was time to change your habit. Remind yourself how you felt at that time, and apply that motivation to the present.
  8. Recall Negative Consequences – Urges can make you remember the positive feelings associated with your behavior. Remind yourself of all the negative consequences that led you to want to change your habit in the first place.
  9. Picture Your Future – Think of how you’ll feel in the near future if you cope with your urge now. For example, waking up in the morning without a hangover, or feeling proud of yourself for not giving in.
  10. Use the Past – Recall an urge you successfully navigated in the past. Remind yourself that urges will pass and you have been able to resist before.
  11. Ride the Wave – Observe the urge that you are surfing a wave that grows, crests, weakens and disappears.
  12. Call on Role Models and Coaches – Talk to others that are further along in the recovery process. Hearing from someone else that it will not only get better, but that it will be worth it, can be a powerful reinforcement.
  13. Reach Out for Social Support – Reach out to others that you trust. Keep a list of people and be sure to let them know how they can help you because they may not intuitively know.
  14. Accept the Urge – Recognize that the urge is uncomfortable and hold it at a distance. See it, but don’t breathe life into it. Remind yourself that the urge is separate from you. Don’t create a bigger issue by pretending it doesn’t exist.

If you need help changing an unwanted behavior, such as substance abuse, call us. We can help.