How to Make an Urge Less Urgent

One of the hardest things for me to understand when I started undoing my urges to eat more food was that I was responsible for creating them. 

Intellectually, I understood that physical sensations in my body were caused by my thoughts in the moment. But whenever an urge arrived – say, as I was chewing my last bite of sandwich while wishing I had more sandwich to eat – that knowledge disappeared and, internally, I was feeling like a trapped animal. 

Over the course of months and months and lots of coaching on the cognitive side of behavior change, my urges did become less anxiety filled. But I was still overeating. I wasn’t bingeing anymore because the quantities of food had lowered from 10,000 calories eaten within a few hours to perhaps 2,000 extra calories eaten throughout the day. And with just a few walks a week and a few weightlifting sessions a week, my weight had stabilized. 

Physically, I had successfully found a way to maintain my weight.

Mentally, I still needed to make doable plans because I ultimately wanted to lose weight, not maintain.

Emotionally…. I still felt trapped. That was the real problem. I knew once I solved this, I would be free, and I would never have to worry about food or my weight ever again.

But it was SO HARD for me to not feel trapped around food! No matter how much journaling I did or peer-coaching I got from my amazing life coaching friends, I still felt stuck. It was driving me crazy, so I searched for other explanations to the “feeling” of being trapped.

Listen to Your Body to Get Results Faster

It’s 100% true that “what you focus on expands.” I focused hard on finding a non-cognitive approach to my transformation and I found the answer: somatic narrative.

Somatic narrative is the “bottom-up” approach, meaning understanding your body to access your thoughts. “Soma” means “the physical body as distinguished from the mind or spirit,” as per the Dictionary of Psychology. Rooted in somatic trauma therapy, somatic narrative is a body-oriented therapeutic model for healing trauma and other stress disorders. Walking and yoga are examples of body-oriented therapy, did you know? Don’t worry if you’re a binger like I was when you hear the word “disorder” – all it means is that part of your behavior is a-little-out-of-order. It does NOT mean that your behavior is wrong or bad. 

If you ever feel “stuck” in the fight, flight or freeze responses, then a somatic approach can break you out of this. You know how an urge can feel unmoving, unyielding, rebellious, and/or stubborn? That’s a fixated physiological (body) state that is solvable.

Before stumbling onto somatic narrative, I almost lost hope and considered that perhaps undoing urges to overeat was an impossible request of the human body and brain. But I kept believing because I had a dream that it was possible, and I wasn’t giving up. There is a way out of suffering, and I knew I wasn’t the only human on Earth who wanted to find ways to end suffering without relying on medication (not to say that prescribed medication isn’t helpful, it absolutely is when diagnosed appropriately; this was just my choice and, honestly, my stubbornness).

Consistently responding to an urge with food creates a habit because it’s an action that is repeated. If you’ve watched my Undoing Urges Mini-Course, then you know the details about this process. A habit is “broken” by creating a new habit, or consistently repeating a different action. But that bridge – crossing from the old habit to a new habit – is where urges live.

I had been adhering to the “top-down” approach for years, and while I made significant changes in other areas of my life (like my marriage, my friendships, my business), it was listening to my body that completed the puzzle for me.

My Cutest Teacher 🐶

You likely know already how perfect the human body is thanks to your experience with training your body, whatever form that looks like. Whether you’re a gym-goer like me, or you train for Spartan races, are part of the “One Peloton” family, or do push-ups in your office every hour-on-the-hour, then you have a level of respect for your body. The more I dove into the nervous system and its impact on our thoughts, the more clearly I understood the trapped feeling I was constantly having. I learned to stop reacting (i.e. eating) because I started feeling it.  What easily made the connection for me was observing my dog’s behavior, Maui.

All animals have emotions. 

When Maui was emotionally excited, his body would naturally respond. His adorable ears would perk up, his tail would wag widely, he would fix his eyes on where he heard an interesting sound, and he wouldn’t care that his upper lip had caught on his teeth. Excitement drove his body to focus and pay attention. 

On the other hand, when Maui was scared, he would lay his ears against his head, his jowls and eyes would lower and look sad, and he would trot quickly to Alan (my husband) or me and lean hard against us. Fear drove his body to move away from the perceived danger and closer to safety. 

I noticed this with all the animals in my backyard. 

The eager, red-shouldered hawks would swoop down to snatch a squirrel or fly away angrily when Alan or I would walk too closely to the tree they were perched in. 

The small songbirds would feast on a breakfast of seeds and suet blocks because they were excited about the food. But they would fly away in nervousness or fear as soon as they saw my reflection on the glass door while I sipped my coffee listening to their little chirps. 

It was by observing animals that I realized that emotions are what help us experience life. We experience our life through our emotions. How else would you know what to run from or move toward in your life? How have your emotions influenced the way you live your life now? 

Humans are more complex emotional creatures than many animals, but the purpose of emotions is the same across species because emotions drive our actions. This realization helped me understand my own emotions because I began getting curious rather than staying anxious about them, especially the “negative” ones.

I really began to understand this connection when I read the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. An amazing psychiatrist and researcher on post-traumatic stress, van der Kolk cited Charles Darwin on the value of emotions:

For Darwin mammalian emotions are fundamentally rooted in biology: They are the indispensable source of motivation to initiate action. Emotions (from the Latin emovere – to move out) give shape and direction to whatever we do, and their primary expression is through the muscles of the face and body. These facial and physical movements communicate our mental state and intention to others… Darwin goes on to observe that the fundamental purpose of emotions is to initiate movement that will restore the organism to safety and physical equilibrium” (pg. 75).

You’ve Gotta Feel Your Feelings

All urges can be undone, meaning they can be pulled apart thread by thread until the rope is no longer strong and thick. That means walking across that bridge step by step by step until you’re all the way on the other side… done with the old habit and living in the new one. This is so important to do if you have urges that are so strong, they’re causing bingeing or overeating in a pattern – either the same foods, same amounts, same events, or same time of day or week.  

Maybe your urges aren’t as scary as mine felt, but if they are, then just the thought of stepping toward an urge might create an urge right then and there. For this reason, I couldn’t “practice” a new habit in my kitchen or in front of my pantry… yet. I had to rehearse it mentally first because that was easier and more doable. I also mentally rehearsed in the mornings because my willpower was strongest in the mornings. Side note: willpower is an untapped resource and one of your greatest strengths, and I teach you how to use it correctly in my Undoing Urges Weight Loss Program. 

I love this exercise from the book Sensorimotor psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment by Pat Ogden. You’re a smart individual, which means you understand that your thoughts are creating your urges. But if you want results faster and you want to change those thoughts but feel stuck, then listening to your body first before untangling your thoughts is the approach you need now.

Click here or on the image below to access the exercise I just mentioned (make sure you “make a copy” FIRST!). Carve out 10 min of your day (daily would be best) to answer these six questions. This is mental rehearsal. You’re like an athlete mentally playing out their performance for the game before actually stepping on the field. Mental rehearsal is proven to create memory, which are new neural pathways – new habits.

Exercise: Exploring Body Sensation: Beliefs, Emotions & the Body

This work is important because it’s real and permanent. If you feel stuck or want some guidance, then please contact me at nicole@nicoleterweycoaching.com. There is a way to get from where you are now with your eating habits to where you want to be… where you feel calm and normal around food, whether that food is in front of you or in your thoughts. 

Go get that dream body of yours,

P.S. If starting small is difficult for you because your thoughts and expectations are too strong, then please email me or schedule a consult call. Stopping overeating is possible, and it begins with small but impactful steps like these.

van der Kolk, Bessel (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY.