Step 5: Battle strategy
Create your own list of passions or things that you absolutely love doing, so that you’ll have plenty of options when the next urge hits. You can also write those passions down on a small piece of paper and carry the list with you in your pocket or wallet. Everybody is going to have different passions that work for them, so make it your own.
Go work on or participate in one of your passions right now. Pay attention to what it feels like to be doing something you truly love.
With what you’ve learned so far, you’re prepared to fight smart. And if every urge went away when we turned to one of our passions, we’d be set. We all know, however, that urges can sometimes follow you around and chomp at your heels like a pesky puppy. Urges can be stubborn, especially if you’ve been using for a while.
So to combat that, let’s talk a little more about the R in S.T.A.R.: respond in a healthy way. We’ve already talked about one powerful way to respond, and that is to replace the urge with something better—one of your passions. While responding in this way can often be enough to help you during a battle, there is another way to respond that can be powerful when the urge doesn’t seem to be going away.
Instead of turning away from the urge, try something brave: make eye contact with it. Hold your position with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Calmly observe what you are feeling and thinking. Try to stay curious, present, and calm as you watch the urge. Step back and observe your experience like we discussed doing with thoughts: as if you were watching a sporting event on TV. Notice how the urge changes and moves over time, like a wave in the ocean.
Once an urge begins and you feel the desire to use, most people generally believe that the craving will continue to increase in intensity until they give in to it. Isn’t that how we usually think? From this perspective, an urge is a straight line that will continue to increase upward in intensity until we act on it or stop it somehow.When you actually watch an urge close-up, however, it can surprise you. In reality, an urge is less like a rising line and more like a wave; it swells to a crest or peak, and then if we wait it out it will naturally subside. In other words, urges and cravings—no matter how strong—will eventually go away. This is always the case. Not sometimes— always. Sometimes the urge can take longer to pass and it may feel like it won’t ever go away, but trust us, it will pass. Some people call this “urge surfing.” While it takes absolutely zero energy and effort to give in to an urge, choosing to stand, face, and watch an urge takes something else. It takes courage. Doing this can definitely be challenging, mostly because you want to do something more than just watch it on the recliner with a bag of popcorn. Like having a bug bite itch, you’re going to want to do something to make it go away or scratch it, which would only make it worse. When urge surfing is done right, you do neither of those things. Instead, you stay present, step back from the urge, and watch it—even if it gets tough, even if you have to hang on during moments of intensity. To get to the end of an urge, try focusing on your breathing for a couple of seconds before returning to observe the urge.
You’re probably thinking, “Are you kidding? If I don’t do something, the urge will win.”
Most people think the same thing when they first hear us tell them to try to step back from an urge and observe it. You can see why this is a master-level technique. It’s difficult, but it’s incredibly powerful and will prove to be one of the most effective ways of responding. Once you become an expert, you’ll notice you have the ability to handle impulses in many different situations. It’ll take time, but as you start practicing a little bit here and there, you’ll be a black belt before you know it.
To recap, we’ve now explored two different ways to respond with S.T.A.R. The first way deals with replacing the urge by getting engaged with one of your passions. The second way involves stepping back from the urge, so it is separate from who you are, and then simply watching and observing it. As you do this, pay attention to your surroundings and how you feel at that moment, as well as to your body and your thoughts. Then you can simply watch the urge take on a life, grow to full strength, and eventually dissolve into nothing, just like an ocean wave. Ready to try this out?
Imagine you’re checking your email and you see an advertisement for pornography in your spam folder. You can feel the desire to open it creeping in. In the past, you would have just given in immediately. However, now that you have S.T.A.R., you decide to step back from the situation, take a few conscious breaths, ask yourself what you really want, and then respond. But this time you respond differently. Instead of replacing the urge with a passion, you decide to stay present and breathe. You stay conscious and recognize the emotions you’re feeling. You notice the urge grow to its full strength and just watch it. Like a scientist studying an object’s behavior or a hunter in the forest watching an animal, patiently you wait for it to dissipate and scatter. It’s hard for a minute, but you stick with it.
Then it’s gone. You did it!
“OK, great,” you’re thinking, “but doesn’t the urge or craving just come back again?” Sure, it can and it probably will—especially at first. This will give you plenty of chances to practice. But each time you do, the intensity of the urge will decrease a little bit. And over time, you are slowly retraining your brain to not be driven by any passing urge.
Some days, of course, you may not want to practice S.T.A.R. You may decide to just give in and let the urge win. That’s your choice to make, but just realize that each time you do, you’re probably setting yourself up for stronger, more powerful urges to come. Did you know that although acting on an impulse relieves the urge in the moment, it actually makes the urge stronger over time because it is reinforcing the brain’s neural pathways that lead to using? By contrast, each time you practice S.T.A.R., you are blazing another pathway in your brain. This new pathway says: “There’s the urge. I’m no slave, and I won’t be moved today—not by this.”
The longer you practice S.T.A.R., the less intense urges will be because you’re not feeding them or ignoring them. Bottom line: the key to not having to face powerful urges the rest of your life is to learn to respond wisely and powerfully now! In the meantime, remember to be patient with yourself. It may take time to get the hang of it. You may fall and give in to an urge. It’s important that you don’t give up. Keep practicing S.T.A.R. until it becomes second nature for you. After a while you’ll get the hang of it, and it’ll get easier and easier.
The exciting news is that you are learning smart ways to let impulses pass, and building confidence in your ability to endure discomfort and stay present through intensity. We’ve just spent some significant time exploring different ways to strengthen your mind’s capacity to respond to addictive patterns. Take as long as you need to make sure you understand how to implement S.T.A.R. in your life so that you can be prepared when an urge comes.
What we invite you to do today is practice watching an urge that comes—even if it’s just a simple urge to eat some junk food. Rather than just giving in to the urge, notice it arise and how it feels in your body. Practice what we’ve talked about by watching it and finding the breath in your body as a way to ground yourself. After a couple of minutes, do you notice the urge changing? Keep watching it. It will happen. The good news about this way of responding is that you start to learn not to be a slave to whatever urge or craving arises. You can learn to not get pulled into the urge, and gain a new level of freedom based on your new ability to watch your thoughts and feelings go by without getting pulled in.