If you feel bothered by an itch and feel the need to scratch, or if you notice that the way you sit makes you feel uncomfortable and you put yourself in a position that feels better, this is not an issue and may even be helpful.
But sometimes urges are about things that have more severe consequences, like feeling angry and having the urge to yell at your partner, or having a fit of insomnia, and the urge to take a sleeping pill. It’s understandable because it’s a quick fix.
However, these little pills are not a long-term solution to your sleeping problems, and relying on them can be very harmful. Not only can they reduce deep sleep, the essential sleep stage for rejuvenating your body and mind, but they may also cause drowsiness, addiction, and heart risks.
However, we all feel urges and often want to control them but is that the best way to deal with them? Let’s first understand what urges are and what happens if we act on or suppress them. Then, we can look at a simple 3-steps method to deal with them more effectively.
What are urges?
An essential function of our emotions is to prompt behaviors. We call that impulse an “urge.” For example, if we feel angry, we may have the urge to fight. Or if we feel fear, we may be prompted to run or flee. At night when you can’t sleep, you may feel the urge to get out of bed, grab your smartphone, or take sleeping pills.
In most cases, acting on these urges or trying to suppress them is an attempt to outrun the uncomfortable feeling; it’s an avoidance strategy that only gives you short-term gain but won’t help you long-term.
A more effective way is to adopt an open and curious attitude towards the urge and observe it without fighting it. In this way, you can regain control over your actions, i.e., you can decide for yourself whether or not to take the sleeping pill.
Here is the procedure, including a simple 3-step exercise that you can practice at any time, even in bed at night, when you cannot sleep.
“Wave surfing” your urges
Usually, urges come in waves, meaning they subside after a while. Also known as “urge surfing,” you may want to imagine that the sensations connected with your urge are like ocean waves that arrive, crest, and subside. Observe how the wave rises and falls as the intensity of your feelings increases and decreases.
You basically ride the “wave” until the urge subsides. By doing so, you allow your emotions, physical sensations, and urges to exist within you by creating space around them in which they can move freely.
Using your breath as your anchor
A great way to do this is to bring your breath into the equation. Your breath is your natural anchor system in your body; it’s always there, and you can always rely on it.
Your breath has the ability to unite your mind and body. Have you ever noticed that your breathing becomes shallow when the mind is restless? And how your mind slows down when you take a slow, deep breath? That is because they are partners in crime. When one moves, the other follows; when the breath expands, the mind expands too; when the breath calms and slows, the mind calms and slows also.
Step 1: Engage in deep breathing
So we want the breath to take the lead and be the anchor by taking slow, deep breaths while focusing on the affected part of your body.
However, keep in mind that deep breathing isn’t simply inhaling more air into your chest. Chest breathing is what we tend to do when we are stressed, and it puts a strain on our fight-or-flight nervous system. Instead, we want to use our bellies for breathing to activate our restful parasympathetic nervous system that restores the body to a state of calm.
Also interesting: Mindful Breathing For Better Sleep: How To Do It Properly?
Deep breathing is also known as diaphragmatic breathing, which is done by contracting the diaphragm, a strong sheet of muscle that divides the chest from the abdomen. As air enters the lungs, the chest doesn’t rise, but the belly expands.
If this breathing pattern is new to you, here’s how it works: Shift your breath from your chest to the belly. It helps to imagine a balloon in your stomach; every time you breathe in, you gently expand the balloon, and every time you breathe out, you gently deflate the balloon.
Step 2: Do a quick body scan
A body scan is an easy way to reconnect with our body and notice what you’re feeling and where those sensations and urges are located. A body scan lets you feel your feet, arms, head, and so on without denying the area of difficulty.
So take a few moments to scan your body from head to toe. Bring awareness to the top of your body, your head, face, neck, shoulders. Then move down to the arms and the hands, the back of the body and the front of the body, and finally move to your upper legs, lower legs, and the feet.
Are there any particular places that call out for attention? Places where sensations and urges feel intense or uncomfortable like a lump in your throat, a knot in your stomach, a tightness in your chest, or any other stiffness, tension, pain, or discomfort. There is no good or bad place for an emotion to be located; important is that you notice where you can feel it when it shows up in your body.
Your emotional reaction may take the form of a lump in your throat, a knot in your stomach, goosebumps on your arms or legs, muscle tension, or some other form of physical sensation. (If you cannot localize the sensation, just breathe consciously at that moment while you feel the unpleasant sensation).
Step 3: Breathe through the affected area
Then slowly breathe through that area with every in- and exhale. Imagine your breath flowing into and around the emotion or sensation of friction. This communicates to your consciousness that you’re opening up and making space for the experience to float and move.
I know that some people have difficulties focusing on their breath. If that’s you, there are many other exercises you can do. For example, you can visualize and describe your emotions. That is a variation of the previous three-step acceptance technique.
Alternatively, you can visualize your sensations
First, scan your body and pick the sensation that bothers you the most. Take a moment to observe it and then describe it without judging it. Imagine that the sensation or feeling is an object within you that you are looking at. Answer the following questions: Does your emotion have a size or a shape? Does it have a color? Does the feeling have any weight, texture, or temperature? Is the emotion fixed, or is it moving?
Also interesting: Why We Dream: The Key to Emotional and Mental Wellbeing
When you have answered these questions, imagine the feeling resting in front of you, with the size, shape, color, and weight that you have given it. Just observe it for a few moments and recognize it for what it is. When you are ready, you can let the emotion return to its original place within you.
Describe your emotions and urges in a non-judgmental way
The challenge here is that it is very easy to be overwhelmed and switch from description mode to evaluation or assessment mode. Remember that describing means giving an objective and non-judgmental representation of what is happening at a particular moment, such as “I feel my heart beating fast in my chest.” On the other hand, evaluating means giving a subjective and judgmental opinion about your experience, such as “My heart is beating so fast that I think I have a heart attack.”
Research shows that if you can describe your emotions and urges in a non-judgmental way, you reduce the response of your amygdala and limbal systems, the areas of the brain that cause emotional stress.
So if you adopt a non-judgmental attitude during times of increased stress, such as when you go to bed or wake up in the middle of the night, you may be able to respond better to your unpleasant urges and sensations.
This simple exercise aims to make you more aware of when an urge arises, so that you can choose how you want to act rather than just react.
In other words, it helps you regain control over your actions, which is crucial in difficult situations like insomnia. You can then draw on your own wisdom and decide whether to act to an urge like taking this sleeping pill or not.