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Urge Surfing – What is it?

Posted on December 12, 2019

Urge Surfing – What is it?

Have you ever had a bad night out with your friends? You got rejected at the bar all night and end up lying in bed alone.

You instinctively reach for your phone and start sending those “risky DMs” to everyone you are mildly attracted to in the hopes of getting some fulfilling attention.

This action is considered an urge and is just one example of the many subconscious actions people take in these situations.

What is urge surfing [3]

Have you ever acted out of pure impulse because of some emotional experience? Do you resort to certain habits after you experience a certain thought or memory? These are called urges.

Put simply, an urge usually follows a thought and usually results in some habitual behaviour.

These are very common and occur in everyone across the world.

In the example above, the individual induced the thought of loneliness after being rejected all night.

The habitual behaviour which followed would be the individual trying to reach out to every one of the sex they are attracted to for attention as temporary relief of the pain of loneliness.

This may seem like a great idea at the time, but once your rational thought kicks in, you will realize that you made a mistake.

Urges usually only provide temporary relief, which is why people resort to them habitually.

However, in the long run, there are usually negative consequences associated with these habits. In the example above, the individual gets the short-term benefit of maybe getting a response from someone they message.

However, in the long term (the next morning) the person feels regret from making a fool of themselves.

Decisions you make in life are not reversible and what seemed like a great idea at the time may result in heavy regret the next day. Putting your reputation and dignity on the line in order to get some short term fulfilment is not a good habit to partake in.

This term “urge surfing” was developed by G.A Marlatt, a leading psychologist who proved that there was a better way to combat substance addiction. Urge surfing is a method that can be used to help mitigate the effects of the urges we have.

Urge surfing makes the claim that fighting an urge is useless. Rather, through identifying these urges, one can be mindful of them and rather than try to fight it, surf with it. This may sound ridiculous, but it is an effective method.

In the example we have been using, the individual is lying in bed after a lonely night. They grab their phone and are ready to send out messages to everyone they know.

However, they identify their urge and rather than send risky messages which they will regret in the morning, they fight through the urge through using the steps below The urge eventually retreats and they are capable of thinking using their head.

They no longer wish to send messages to everyone they know, and rather, simply go to bed and wake up without regret.

This is something that a lot of people do but do not identify. Like most mental processes, people do not understand what is happening and usually have to be told it is. However, the difference with urges compared to mental disorders is that if you put thought into these occurring, you will notice it happening.

This is something which can be self-diagnosed and self-treated.

Some points on urges [1]

Urges usually do not last more than 30 minutes, as long as you do not do something to feed their power. You can feed the power of an urge by thinking about it, planning to do it, or trying to justify the urge as rational behaviour.

If you break, the urge will overcome you and you will partake in irrational behaviour with negative long term consequences. Furthermore, that 30-minute time gap can be expanded if you feed into these urges.

Do not feed into them, follow the steps below to understand how to ride these urges until they are gone.

Usually, trying to fight an already formed urge is a futile attempt. Fighting urges only makes them stronger and feeds their prevalence in your head. This article gives methods to work with, rather than against your urges to let you live a more fulfilling life.

Read the steps below and understand exactly how to work WITH not AGAINST your urges to ensure you are making rational decisions.

If you let your urges grow by feeding them, it will feel as if they are never going to stop until you finally bite and give in to the urge. An urge is like an addiction, in order to kick it, you must identify the addiction and figure out the best ways to kick it.

Ways of feeding urges may include justifying the behaviour, trying to fight the behaviour, or trying to ignore the behaviour.

This article will give you the tools necessary to learn to cope with, rather than try to fight your urges. This article will teach you how to ride your urges and control them to benefit you rather than suffer from them long term. By following these steps, you will learn how to mitigate the effects of these urges and make good choices that you will not wake up regretting.

Putting urges into a different form – Ocean

Think of an urge like the waves off a beach. They form, crest and break, then retreat back into the ocean. A surfer knows that the wave will break at one point then slowly dissipate back into nothing. This is no different than an urge and you are no different than a surfer. You have a few options to try to deal with these urges you get.

Option 1: Fight the Wave. The problem with fighting a wave is that you will never win. The wave is a powerful force of nature that will overcome any person. If you try to fight a wave and do not beat it to its cresting point, you are doomed to tumble uncontrollably until the wave finally dissipates. This option will never work but is often the first resort for people unaware that the urges they are having can be controlled.

Option 2: Ride the Wave. This is the option that this article hopes to teach the reader. By accepting that you are going to be hit by this wave and need to ride it out to be safe, you already are taking major steps into improving your own life. By riding the wave, you can control yourself on this wave, and make choices to affect what will happen until this wave dies out.

How can I learn to urge surf?  [3]

Start by practising being mindful of your urges. Practice deep breathing, being mindful of your breath the entire time you are breathing. Do not modify your breathing, just breathe and focus on it. Focus on your thoughts.

Try to pinpoint the area of your body these sensations originate from. Notice what is occurring. The following are some examples of what you may be able to notice.

Are you feeling a tight or loose sensation anywhere in your body? Is this sensation long-lasting or coming and going?

Do you feel a temperature associated with this feeling, such as a warm gut, warm head? Does this stick around or is it also shortcoming?

Where is the sensation on your body?

Draw a border around this sensation

Are the borders hard, stopping in one exact place or does the feeling dissipate into your body?

Take note into what changes overtime during these feelings

Take interest in the experience of this urge and that you are learning something new about yourself, do not be fearful

If you notice the urge flaming up then coming down, that means you are taking control of the urge

Keep track of the feeling of the urge for about a minute. Feel for the urge changing size or feeling

If you feel the urge manifesting itself into thoughts, work on focusing on the feeling rather than thinking about it.

Focus on riding out the urge like you are riding out a wave. By treating it like that, you will have a much easier time getting through it.

The five steps of urge surfing [2]

Step 1: Identify your feeling and that it will become an urge

Try to catch it early, as the earlier you catch it, the easier it will be to overcome. Feel for fast changes in emotion. For example, if you are at a party and all of a sudden get an urge of loneliness, identify that as not a normal occurrence and as an urge.

Step 2: Stay aware

Be observant like you are a scientist. Do not try to act on controlling these urges. Treat yourself like your own test subject and really try to analyze yourself. By doing so you are able to start understanding how your body works and how to best ride these waves in the future.

Step 3: Keep mental notes about how you are feeling

What physical and mental sensations are you feeling when you are going through these urges? Feel for certain areas in your body changing in feeling, as if you may have a burning in your stomach or a feeling of numbness in your spine.

These feelings are often associated with urges and will push you towards making those rash decisions to better yourself in the short run.

Step 3: Keep track of what triggers it

By understanding the triggers of these urges, good and bad, you can better influence your ability to control when these urges occur. For example, being at a party may give you the urge to consume alcohol.

Or being near a gym may give you the urge to workout. Understand these triggers to put yourself in a better situation to either stay near or away from these urges.

Step 4: Keep in mind that this will pass and use a slogan.

Understand that as a person, this, like anything else will pass. Keep that in mind. Also, if it helps, think of some sort of slogan to use that you can keep repeating. Something such as “I can ride this out,” or “I will get through this.”

Final thoughts

Urges are something that affects every American every day. Urges are something which can be controlled through the simple steps listed above in the article. Do not let urges take control of your life.

You are ultimately in control, any by following the steps above, you can ride these urges until they are gone and take better control of your actions. Do not go for the short-term outcome because it is the easy one as it will have long term consequences.


[1] Surfing the Urge: An Informal Mindfulness Practice for the Self-Management of Aggression by Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. 10.1016/j.jcbs.2018.10.003. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science.

[2] Ostafin, B. D., & Marlatt, G. A. (2008). Surfing the Urge: Experiential Acceptance Moderates the Relation Between Automatic Alcohol Motivation and Hazardous Drinking. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(4), 404–418. doi: 10.1521/jscp.2008.27.4.404

[3] Smith, A. (2006). “Like Waking Up From A Dream”: Mindfulness Training For Older People With Anxiety And Depression. Mindfulness-Based Treatment Approaches, 191–215. doi: 10.1016/b978-012088519-0/50010-1

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