Urge surfing: Riding the crave wave

Understanding cravings helps people to tolerate and overcome them.

Cravings are a natural part of the journey when you are looking to change your alcohol or other drug use. For most people, cravings will be strongest in the early parts of cutting down this behaviour, but some people cravings may occur for the first few months and sometimes even years after their alcohol or substance use has stopped.

The experience of cravings can be linked to the long-term use of alcohol or other drugs and can continue long after you have stopped using. What this means is that people who have had a longer and heavier history of use will tend to experience stronger and more intense urges.

Cravings can lose their power if you don’t add force to them by acting on your thoughts and desires. Even if you drink or use drugs only now and then, you will keep those cravings alive. Cravings are like a stray animal – if you keep feeding them, they will keep coming back.

Remember that when urges go unfed, future urges gradually become weaker, losing their power. The peak or intensity of the craving wave will become smaller, and the waves will become further apart. That is why understanding cravings and urges is key to learning how to tolerate and overcome them.

Riding the wave crave

What are Urges and Craves?

When we look at the words “urge” and “cravings” they refer to a broad range of thoughts, strong desires and physical sensations that can lead you to act impulsively and out of habit.

You may feel that these urges and cravings are difficult to control. You may also feel an uncomfortable split within yourself, where you are being pulled in two different directions. For example, the side of you that wants to change your use and be a healthier version of yourself and the side of you that wants what it wants.

It is key to understand that urges are an intense physical and emotional experience that can be triggered with an event, a thought, feeling, memory, or image pulls someone towards an automatic way of thinking and responding. Cravings can also appear because of a trigger (e.g., incident, feelings) or a situation (e.g., people, places, or events) that has been associated with alcohol or substance use.

It is very helpful to understand your urges, consider tracking and evaluating them over a period of a few weeks. By doing this activity, you will be able to increase your awareness around what triggers an urge, when and how you experience them and ways to avoid and cope with them.  

How to Practice Urge Surfing

  1. Acknowledge you are having an Urge (wave).
  2. Notice your thoughts and feelings without trying to suppress them.
    1. Note: It is normal to feel discomfort when you experience an urge
  3. Remind yourself of the following:
  4. Reframe from taking action on your urge
  5. Visualise your urge as a wave and
  6. Focus on your breath.

As mentioned in step four, it may help to think of cravings just like waves at the beach. Every wave in a set starts off small – it builds up to its highest point, and then it breaks and flows away to shore. Each individual wave never lasts more than a few minutes. An urge is just the same - it starts off small, and then it builds up – with physical parts, behaviours, and thoughts. But it reaches its peak - just like a wave - and it will eventually break and reduce in size. This intense part of the process usually doesn’t last more than 10 minutes, so try and stick with it and ride the wave.

Crave ‘waves’ are also most intense in the early stages of cutting back or stopping, so even though the urge may continue to come and go, they will become less intense and frequent over time. It can be helpful to imagine that in the future, the waves might be less powerful, gentle, foamy surf.

Tips to Urge Surfing

The more you take care of yourself and your body, the more likely it will be that you have the energy and focus to work on urge surfing. But we at eCliPSE understand that sometimes using alcohol or other drugs can make it difficult to take care of yourself.

Remember that urge surfing is a skill to be practiced and that you will get better at it over time. Praise yourself for trying, even if you aren’t successful as you had hoped or if you ‘give in’ to an urge after a long time. It is all part of the journey!

Urge surging requires that you are patient and that you take care of your physical health, getting enough sleep, getting some exercise (even a short walk), making health food choices with enough fruit and veggies in your diet, and having a good support network of family and friends and professional support. Check out our Coping with Cravings page for more tips.

Safe Withdrawal 

Withdrawal is the change that a body goes through when you stop or cut back on substances. This process will be different for everyone. It can involve physical pain, fatigue, irritability, intense cravings, and insomnia. It is important to know that suddenly cutting back on certain substances can be dangerous and even cause harm. You can discuss withdrawal with a health professional or a drug and alcohol service. If you need help finding services check out our "Find a Service" page.


Quiz me

This section of eCliPSE takes you through a series of quizzes (or screening tools) designed to help you understand the different types of thoughts and feelings you are currently experiencing.

By completing these quizzes, you can get some feedback on your mood and lifestyle choices. You can also download this feedback into a letter that you can show your GP or other health care professional and discover which of our eHealth programs might be the best for you right now.

Over time, you can track your mood and lifestyle behaviours by returning to the quizzes and taking them again at any time.

Take the quiz