How Not To Let Your Urges Control You
In the last couple of posts we’ve been focusing on skills to help you manage your emotions more effectively; this, of course, will have positive outcomes for your relationships, as the intensity of your emotions decreases and you have more control over how you’re behaving. But let’s take a closer look now at things you can do to reduce the likelihood that you’ll end up acting on urges in ways that have negative consequences later on.
Why Not Act on Our Urges?
As you read in a previous post, an urge is the combination of thoughts and emotions that causes us to act. It could involve something as harmless as being bothered by an itch and feeling the need to scratch it, or noticing you’re feeling uncomfortable the way you’re sitting and shifting yourself into a position that feels better. But urges often involve things with more serious consequences, like feeling angry and having an urge to yell at your best friend or your sister, or feeling really sad and having thoughts of hurting yourself.
We all have urges at times. And we all act on those urges at times, even when doing so might have negative consequences. But this is the key—that often, acting on an urge has negative consequences. So the goal is to become more aware of when an urge is arising, which allows you to choose how you’d like to act, rather than just reacting —in other words, to access your own wisdom (your wise self) and choose whether you’d like to act on the urge or not.
Think for a moment about some of the urges you might experience that tend to have negative consequences: avoiding things when you’re anxious (like social situations!) by sleeping, gaming, or using substances; lashing out at others when you’re angry; isolating yourself when you’re feeling sad or lonely. You might have urges to overeat or binge, or not eat at all; you might feel like hurting or even killing yourself at times; or maybe you experience urges to hurt others, physically or emotionally, when you become really angry.
Now consider some of the negative consequences of going along with these behaviors when you follow through on the urges you’re experiencing. Maybe no one knows when you’ve acted on an urge, so it doesn’t affect anyone else, but it may have poor outcomes for your health (for example, when you’re eating poorly or hurting yourself) or for the way you feel about yourself (for example, you know you’re avoiding something, and you feel guilty about it).
But often others do know: they see you hiding in your room avoiding life, or coming home drunk or high; or they’re the target of your anger, and so on. When you’re acting on urges in these ways, of course, your relationships will be negatively affected as well. The people who care about you can watch you do harm to yourself (or them or others) for only so long. Sooner or later, they start to burn out and have a harder time being there to support you in ways they’d like to (and in ways that you’d like them to).
One last point: you might remember from previous discussion about acting opposite to an emotion that acting on your urge actually feeds into the emotion you’re having. And this is one more reason to try to access your wise self and do something different instead. But what to do?
Of course, you probably don’t always act on your urges; so take a moment right now to consider the times when you’ve been able to act in ways that don’t have those negative consequences—what did you do then? Surely there are times when, instead of yelling at your sister, you left the room, or rather than stealing some alcohol from your parents’ liquor cabinet, you talked things out with a friend. Those are the kinds of things that we would consider skillful behavior; and our goal here is to get you doing more of that.
Crisis Survival Skills And Controlling Urges
Skills that help you not act on urges are called crisis survival skills, because they help you survive a crisis without making things worse. Since some of these skills can actually lead to avoidance themselves, it’s important to first of all figure out when it’s a good time to use them. So let’s define the term “crisis.” Essentially, a crisis is a period of time in which there is a problem that you’re unable to resolve, and it’s causing you to experience an increase in emotional distress. Because the problem can’t be solved immediately, your emotional pain isn’t going to go away anytime soon. These are the times when we often experience urges to do things to help us cope, and often those things have negative outcomes. So what do you do? You practice your crisis survival skills.
Be sure to remember, though, that you can sometimes overuse these skills. When you’re distracting all the time, for example, you’re no longer distracting, you’re avoiding. And if you’re overusing these skills, you might find that you’re not taking care of your responsibilities—for example, your homework isn’t getting done because you’re playing video games all the time—or that the activity you’re engaging in is actually having negative consequences rather than being neutral: for example, you’re eating your favorite foods too often and this is leading to an unhealthy lifestyle. So the key with these skills is that you’re using them in moderation, to help you deal with crises when they arise—remember, you want balance in your life!
The first way of helping yourself get through a crisis is by doing things that take your mind away from a problem that can’t immediately be fixed. There are lots of ways to do this, and they’ll be different for everyone—what’s distracting for one person may not be for the next. Take a look at the following list of activities (it’s not exhaustive!) then make your own list of things that might help your mind off a problem when you’re having urges that might make the situation worse.
Do a word search.
Talk to a friend.
Draw, paint, or doodle.
Go for a walk.
Ride your bike.
Look at photographs.
Eat your favorite food.
Go rollerblading or skateboarding.
Finish something you started.
Clean or reorganize your room.
Meet a friend for coffee.
Think of times when you felt happy.
Give yourself a facial.
Teach your dog or cat a new trick.
Go to a religious service.
Play cards with someone.
Look at old yearbooks.
Buy yourself something nice.
Imagine your life after graduation.
Go to a movie.
Lie in the sun.
Go somewhere you can watch nature.
Burn some incense.
Tell someone you love them.
List the things you like about yourself.
Get dressed up and go out.
Read the newspaper cartoons.
Look at the stars.
Upload some favorite photos on Facebook.
Go to a pet store and play with the animals.
Take a hot bath.
Play with your pet.
Play video games.
Play a board game with your sibling or a friend.
Bake some cookies.
Find a fun new ring tone for your cell phone.
Listen to a relaxation CD.
Surf the Internet.
Do a craft.
Cook your family dinner.
Write a short story or poem.
Watch your favorite TV show.
Buy someone a gift.
Take photographs of things you like.
Go to websites to read funny jokes.
Plan your summer vacation.
Go somewhere to people watch.
Smile at someone.
Reach out to someone you miss.
Plan a fun day out on the weekend.
Read a comic book.
Make something out of play dough or clay.
Update your Facebook status.
Check your e-mail.
Listen to music.
Go to the beach.
Polish your toenails or fingernails.
Cut the grass.
Go for a picnic.
Go to the zoo or a museum.
Invite a friend over.
Download some new music, videos, books, or games.
Experiment with different hairstyles.
Send someone a card for no reason.
Give someone a compliment.
Walk barefoot in the grass or sand.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in your favorite place.
Play a musical instrument.
Write someone a letter or e-mail.
Learn to do something new.
Visit a friend.
Go skiing or snowboarding.
Watch a movie.
Scrapbook or journal.
Play a sport you enjoy.
Do something nice for your family or a friend.
Light some candles.
Do something to please your parents.
Explore a new area in your neighborhood.
Take a nap.
Go to the mall.
Go somewhere you’ll be around other people, like a park.
Go for a jog.
Do a crossword puzzle.
Fly a kite.
Watch funny videos on YouTube.
Ideally, you want your own list to be as long as possible—although you might not be able to make it as long as the one you’ve seen here! We all know how difficult it is to think straight when you’re stuck in your emotional self. By making yourself a list of activities in advance, you’re taking the thinking out of the equation. You don’t have to wonder what might be helpful for you in that moment; you just pull out your list of distracting activities and get started. So with this sample list, the first thing you would do is a word search; but if you do that for a few minutes and you find you can’t concentrate because your mind is constantly wandering back to the crisis, then you move on to the next thing…and the next…and the next. If you make it all the way to the bottom of your list and you’re still in a crisis and you’re still having urges, then start over at the top of your list.
I’d like to reiterate something here that many of my clients struggle with: Distraction is not going to make the problem go away. It might not even make you feel better, since the problem is still there. The idea is that these skills help you not make things worse. If you survive the crisis without acting on your urges, then the skills are working!
Think about the things you find soothing, and add them to your list; some of the activities that soothe you may overlap with your distracting activities, and that’s fine. Think about your senses as well: what do you find soothing to listen to, for instance? You might add to your list (if it wasn’t already there) “listening to music,” or “listening to nature.” What about things that are soothing to see? You might add to your list, “watching my dogs play,” or “looking at photographs of [someone you care about].” Then think about things that are soothing to taste, touch, and smell, and add these to your list as well.
Again, you can see how these activites aren’t going to solve your problem, but they can help you get through the crisis period without acting on urges that might make things worse for you, so be sure to put a lot of thought into them.
This is a skill that focuses more on your thinking about the crisis; again, it won’t change the problem, but changing the way you’re thinking about it can help you not act on any urges that might be coming up for you, urges that could result in making the crisis worse in the long run. Following are some ways you can work on reframing.
When we think about a problem, we often catastrophize: we think about the worst-case scenario, and how awful everything is likely to turn out. Our minds also tend to take us to times in the past when we’ve had negative experiences, almost as though to prove to us that it can’t possibly go well this time either. For example, if the crisis is that you’ve had an argument with your friend Gina and she isn’t speaking to you right now, your thoughts might go something like this: Great, I’ve screwed up another friendship. I always do this. Gina is probably never going to speak to me again. I won’t have any friends for the rest of my life. Although it’s not uncommon to think like this, you can probably see that it’s completely unhelpful!
So one way of reframing is to counter this kind of thinking. When you notice you’re catastrophizing, try to do something different. Mindfulness, of course, will be helpful, so come back to the present and focus on the here and now. But in the here and now your problem still exists, so try to encourage yourself instead of naysaying. Try thinking things like, It’s difficult, but I will get through this or I don’t know yet that the friendship is over . Notice that we’re not aiming for positive here—It’ll be okay! She’ll come around likely isn’t going to be believable when you’re in those really difficult moments, so stick to neutral instead.
It can also help if you ask yourself, Will this matter a year from now? Sometimes, of course, it will. But you might be surprised at how often you’ll be able to see that, although the situation is painful right now, it’s not something that’s going to still matter in a year. Of course, this isn’t about minimizing your pain. Remember the skill of accepting your emotions, from a previous post? You still need to validate the fact that while it’s not the end of the world, it’s something you’re really struggling with.
Another way of reframing is by comparing yourself to someone who isn’t doing as well—for example: Even though I’m stuck in this crisis, I’m not using drugs like my friend Alexandra is. When you use this skill, it’s important to recognize that it has nothing to do with putting Alexandra down—rather, it’s about helping you see the bigger picture. It’s about acknowledging that, although things are difficult, they could also be worse.
Sometimes, though, people get stuck on this skill. If that’s you, don’t throw the skill out yet. There are other ways you can do it: How about comparing yourself now to a time in your life when you weren’t coping as well? For example, Even though I’m stuck in this crisis, I’m not using drugs like I was last year when things got really hard. Or, instead of narrowing your focus to yourself, try broadening it to a more global level. As I’m writing this post, there are countries whose citizens live in daily danger. So how about this: Yes, things are sucking in my life right now, but at least I’m not living under the threat of war. Hopefully you can see that this has nothing to do with putting yourself or others down, or minimizing anyone’s pain, but with helping you see things from a different perspective and drop the drama. Even if it feels like it right now, is it really the end of the world?
One last way of reframing that we’ll look at here is through finding meaning in your experience. This is basically about not letting your suffering go to waste—is there a way that you can make your pain mean something? Let’s look at Michael as an example. Perhaps, as he begins to act more and more from his own values and continues to give up his bullying behaviors, he can begin to see where these behaviors came from. Remember, Michael began to bully because he didn’t feel good about himself, and because his ADHD and depression got in the way of having healthy relationships with others. So maybe as Michael grows and learns ways of managing his emotions more effectively, he can find meaning in his experience by helping others who are bullies to see that there are other ways of dealing with their emotions besides taking them out on people around them.
Your Next Steps Towards Controlling Your Urges
In this article we’ve focused on skills that will help you get through a crisis situation without making things worse by acting on urges to do things that result in negative consequences. Your main task now is to sit down and start working on your list of crisis survival skills: What can you do when a crisis strikes that will help you not act on the urges that will make things worse? What will distract you from the crisis? What will you do that soothes you? Remember, make the list as long as you can.
Something else to consider is whether there are themes in the crises in your life. Are you regularly in conflict with others? Are there things you tend to fight about with your best friend or your boyfriend or your parents? If so, you may be able to plan in advance for some of these conflicts so that you act in more effective ways. For example, if you know you regularly catastrophize about a specific situation, you could write out some self-encouraging or comparison statements now, so that when a crisis strikes you don’t have to think about them; you can pull out your list and read them to yourself.
Even if you don’t have themes like this, you could probably still do some preplanning: jot down some guiding thoughts on sticky notes and put them around your room so you see messages like, “Is it the end of the world?” or “Will this matter in a month, or a year?”
And remember, keep practicing your other skills as well. When all is said and done, you need to keep working on all your skills to make the permanent changes that will keep you moving toward a more satisfying life.