For the surfing the urge technique, she described a University of Washington study in which smokers who wanted to quit were subjected to a two hour “torture test.” Participants were asked not to smoke the morning before the study. 

Next, they were asked to place a full pack of cigarettes and a lighter in front of them as they filled out a questionnaire rating their desire to smoke, and the level of distress they felt about not having smoked.


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Participants were then prompted to perform a series of tasks including tamping the pack, unwrapping the pack, smelling it, picking a cigarette and placing it between their lips with directions to stop and wait two minutes between each behavior. During the pauses, participants were asked to fill out the rating scale each time. 

Prior to the activity, half of the participants were taught the surfing the urge technique, which involved imagining a difficult experience like a wave and themselves as surfers. 

“They were instructed that if they could ride the wave without giving in, the craving would diminish in intensity, and that they had the will power to say no and move on,” McGonigal explained. 

After the torture test, those who had learned the surf the urge technique had reduced their smoking habit by 37% in the two weeks post intervention compared with those who had not learned the technique, even though they were never asked to quit smoking. 

“This technique allowed the patients to break the link between feeling bad and giving in to smoking. It increased the power between want power and won’t power,” McGonigal said.

In the “cannot walk” intervention, patients were split into two groups and asked to either imagine a place they’d rather be as a pain coping mechanism, or were asked to close their eyes and think, “I cannot walk.” 

Those in the second group were then asked to walk around, while maintaining the thought “I cannot walk.” The intervention was designed to teach patients that it is possible to have a belief, but successfully chose to do the thing they thought they were unable to do. 

Participants from both the distraction and intervention groups were then asked to endure a series of thermoelectric shocks after being told the study was to help patients with chronic pain. Participants were instructed that it was important to endure as many shocks as possible to help those with chronic pain. 

The researchers found that those in the distraction group endured a total of 4.69 shocks before giving up, compared with 8.3 in the “cannot walk” group, and 2.5 among a control group who had undergone no intervention. 

“These two studies shows how accepting a craving or physical pain diminishes the sensation and reduces the intensity of pain and suffering in that moment,” McGonigal said.