And instant wellness in an instant world
The next time you’re struggling to overcome an impulse, try this:
Visualize the urge as an ocean wave that begins as a small wavelet and gradually builds up to a large cresting wave.
As the urge wave grows in strength, surf the urge by allowing it to pass without being "wiped out" by giving into it.
Urges are often conditioned responses triggered by cues and high-risk situations. Like a wave, the conditioned response grows in intensity until it reaches a peak level of craving.
Giving in to the urge when it peaks only serves to further reinforce the addictive behavior. Not acting on the urge, on the other hand, weakens the addictive conditioning and strengthens acceptance and self-efficacy.
Like any skill, learning how to "urge surf" takes practice and improves over time as you attain greater balance on the mindfulness surfboard.
Mindfulness in bite-sized pieces
As I am not a therapist, the above was stolen directly from the creator of urge surfing, who first introduced it to help prevent alcohol or drug abuse relapse.
What is better researched is the group of techniques this falls under.
This is just one of many bite-sized techniques that have started to get popular, offering an approachable solution to managing emotions with little to no time commitment.
Traditional mindfulness-based therapies have solid evidence as effective treatment options. In clinical populations, these standardized MBSR or MBCT treatments help mental and physical health, while in non-clinical populations they are are associated with improvements in burnout, anxiety, stress, depression, and empathy.
Despite this, there’s a massive barrier to entry. Most of the studied treatments last 8 weeks, require daily practice of 40-60 minutes, and have weekly group sessions lasting 2-2.5 hours. Almost 1 in 5 people drop out, and it’s a large commitment when the we’re not actually sure whether the effects are universal.
The solution? Instant mindfulness exercises that you do in 5-20 minutes at no cost.
Now the question is whether they actually work.
Which techniques have been studied?
In general, we can easily shorten mindfulness treatments by only focusing on one aspect of it - like only dealing with acceptance, or compassion.
Most short treatments take one of two forms: they’re either based around mindfulness breathing exercises, or mindfulness strategies like urge surfing. These are delivered through audio recordings, verbal instruction, or writing - in that order of popularity. The shorter the treatments, the more varied the type: self-help materials and online instructions are being used as the convenience increases.
It doesn’t actually seem to matter that much which specific treatment is used - as long as you follow some sort of structured practice, each option is about as good as the next.
Does dose actually matter?
A review of 203 studies suggests that the answer to our question is yes. Short mindfulness treatments work almost just as well as the longer intensive treatments.
There are no significant differences in positive effects for depression, anxiety, and stress across treatment dosages. This means that anything from total amount of contact to number of sessions a week doesn’t really matter when looking at improving mental health. Practicing at home for 10 minutes is just as good as 60.
The one factor that did change was mindfulness. A longer program, more face-to-face contact, and more sessions a week was directly linked to better mindfulness immediately after the treatment.
That being said, how long each session or practice was didn’t change how much mindfulness improved.
This effect was also no longer significant after a few months - mindfulness went back in line with the group that didn’t have as many sessions. Researchers suggested that intense programs may have made people too tired to continue practice after ending the program, meaning that over the long term it doesn’t really make a difference.
It seem like at the end of the day consistency matters over anything- if it works for you, simply turning up can give you the vast majority of the benefits.
It’s also worth remembering that this field is full of bias and small sample sizes - we’ve only included the most robust findings on randomized controlled trials here, but almost every systematic review on brief mindfulness point to diminished effect sizes due to risk of publication bias - basically, a lot of studies tend to say the same thing. Particularly in this field, a decent margin of error is a good idea.
Even so, giving it a shot can’t hurt - especially when even the smallest behavioral changes can have significant effects on your health.
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Thanks for reading! As usual, here are some interesting sources:
2019, Journal Impact Factor - 3.8
2016, Journal Impact Factor - 12.8
2020, Journal Impact Factor - 3.8
2015, Journal Impact Factor - 3.8
2017, Journal Impact Factor - 2.3