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5 Easy Tools to Resist the Urge of Bad Habits

Learning tools from substance use treatment can help us all make better choices.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Urge control is a common term brought up in addiction-focused treatment where people are encouraged to manage the waves of urges that come and go. Some urges or cravings to use may feel like they last a lifetime, but in reality, they’re often much shorter and are often related to specific triggers that occur. Urges last approximately 15 minutes and if you pay attention, they will be gone before you even know it.

When talking about an urge lasting only 15 minutes, the most logical approach is to put off using when you first get the urge. However, it takes knowledge and patience that the urge can and will go away. We often call this urge surfing. See the urge rise on the wave and then ride the wave all the way through until the urge is gone.

Urges don’t just come in the form of addictions though. Urges also come in the form of mental habits and reactions. The urge to react in the same way we have in the past. The urge to lash out in anger. The urge to live from the most childish part of ourselves rather than the most matured adult part of ourselves.

We all have these urges. But as it’s been said, if you do what you’ve always done, you’re going to get what you’ve always gotten. So with that, here are five strategies that can help us deal with these urges. We call them DEADS:






Delay means to just put off reacting, using, or giving in to the craving for a bit of time and know that the urge will go away. That strong emotion will go away. Even if you can delay for 5-10 minutes, that may change the experience you have with the emotion and thus make you better able to handle it. Because how often have we all said something in anger that we then later regretted?

Escape means removing yourself from the situation that is triggering you. Leave the argument. Take a pause. Excuse yourself from the house with alcohol knowing that you can’t be around that. And related to this, avoid situations that you know can be triggering. If you regularly go to places that remind you of using (e.g. clubs, friends' houses, etc.) then avoid going to them in the first place. And even if you do again, you can always escape.

Distract means that you can take control of the urge by getting busy. Don’t just sit there and ruminate on the urge, but put your focus on something else. For some people that may be art, for some it could be just watching TV, reading a book, walking, showering, or exercising, which can be particularly helpful if you’re triggered into anger. Put something else in your life to distract yourself from those things that can be triggering.

Lastly, substitute your behavior. If you're having issues with anger, substitute in a walk as your new behavior. If you’re having issues with substance use, change your behavior so that when you get a craving to smoke a cigarette, you pick up a piece of fruit or vegetable. Although a carrot or celery stick may not give you the same effect, it still helps you take care of that habit of simply having something to put in your mouth. You could also use a toothpick or straw. The trick is to come up with something that can be easily substituted in.

Whether our drug of choice is alcohol or anger, these tools can be useful. We all have some habit we’re trying to change and it’s never easy. As Gandhi once said,

“We cannot, in a moment, get rid of habits of a lifetime.”

So we have to remember that it’s a practice to continue to choose strategies that help us make new habits that are healthier for us and create relationships we want.

Dr. Rubin Khoddam is a Clinical Psychologist currently working in private practice in Los Angeles, CA as well as at the West Los Angeles VA as the Team Lead in the residential rehabilitation program for individuals dealing with issues related to substance use and homelessness. Dr. Khoddam currently provides individual, couples and family therapy, as well as group therapy. He also runs the IMPROVE: Outpatient Substance Use Treatment Program, a low-demand, harm reduction substance use treatment program for individuals hoping to decrease their substance use or examine the impact of their substance use in their life. For more information, visit his site and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.