Urge surfing. When I first heard the phrase I imagined little elves hanging ten on waves of melted chocolate or vodka. Emerging from the addiction treatment world, the idea is simple and perhaps the quickest way to up your brain health quotient. It's not just a technique for our addictions.
The process is simple: want something really, really bad: wait. Notice the urge. Sit with the urge. Wait out the urge. Here is how eating chocolate cake can strengthen your brain in three rounds.
Round One of Urge Surfing: What Is an Urge?
An urge is a desire, a yearning, a hankering; and it's also an impulse. The impulse side of urges is where we get in trouble. When you get dirt on your hands, the impulse to wash them is good. Wash every time you touch something because it might be dirty; that's a disorder. Urges can be good, like the desire to go for a walk to relieve a stressful day. Or, they can be more complicated: you get uncomfortable, you drink. You face change, you drink. You see something that reminds you of feeling uncomfortable and change, you drink more.
Urges, it turns out, don't usually last for more than 30 minutes. And the problematic side of urges go two ways. We have the urge to do something we know isn't in line with what we really want for our life (like eat the whole chocolate cake); and, we have the urge to stop doing the things we know are good for our life (like getting off the couch and going for a run after eating the whole chocolate cake).
But urges are dangerous these days. When the alarm in our brain is on too long, we can't think before we have urges. We have the urge to yell, to lie, to gossip, and my personal favorite, to leave everything behind (Ever have one of those days where you totaled up the money in your bank account and figured out how long you could live in Thailand island hopping? Yeah, me too).
But urges, if you think about them as an alarm reaction, have a valuable flip-side.
Round Two: Using the Urge to Train Your Brain
So here's where the chocolate cake comes in. If your thing isn't chocolate cake, replace it with cheeseburgers, or really good red wine. There is something you love, a lot; it's carnal and fabulous and that's why it's addictive.
Now imagine it before you. Better than that, go get that thing. I presently have a martini in front of me (just saying).
Now wait two minutes before you taste, drink, savor, and indulge (I'm waiting until this article is done). According to a study published in 1985, our brain grows new protein when we form new habits. Urge surfing has this insanely important thing that's similar to learning to delay gratification: It proves we can wait.
Before we yell when someone wrongs us, we can hold off. Before we do something we know is wrong, we can slow down and think first. Before we eat the whole chocolate cake; yeah, you, me, and even our puppy dogs can be trained to wait.
Round Three: Three Brain Building Chocolate Cake Exercises
First, get your favorite. No old cake will do here. It has to be a reward worth savoring to make sure your brain is really ready to learn. The right rewards increase our performance.
Exercise one: Eat dinner, saving room for dessert. Eat two pieces of cake slowly. Or try. Here's why this teaches you about your urges. You won't want both pieces. If you do, you didn't eat enough vegetables. Taking our time is one of the ways to let the reactive side of us cascade. When we go slow, our alarm in our brain stops sending the hormones that keep you moving too fast. Moving too fast creates more desire for more cake than is good for you.
Exercise two: Share your cake. Get a piece of cake and someone you like. Now take turns eating bites of the cake. Again, you won't want as much cake because you will experience pleasure greater than the cake itself. What you do with the leftover cake is up to both of you.
Exercise three: Wait two minutes between bites. Now, not only are you learning that you don't have to wolf down treats just because your brain says you need to, you actually taste the food.
In each case, you take the part of you that wants to gobble, binge, and throw caution to the wind and you remind yourself, you can enjoy what you love and the desire for it doesn't have to own you. Our brains are so much stronger than we usually let them be.
Time for that first sip... in two minutes.