Urge Surfing: Dealing with Difficult Stuff
I don't recall when I first heard the term urge surfing but I loved it the moment I heard it. It comes from the addiction literature and was introduced as a way to deal with the really difficult urges that occur with addiction. But I think it can have a much more broad use that just to manage the urge to use alcohol, cocaine, or some other substance. The phrase "urge surfing" gives an important clue as to why this is so important and useful.
Urges are normal. We all have them. Whether it is an urge to eat, drink, sleep, scratch an itch, or have sex, they pop up throughout the day. Some are mild - I have an urge to have a second doughnut (or a third), some are strong - I have an urge to scratch that spot in my back that I can't reach. They can be tied to physical sensations such as eating and sex or to behaviors such as wanting to shout at someone when you are angry. If you give in to an urge, you often experience a range of emotions after the fact, from relief to joy to guilt to regret. If you fight or resist an urge, it often intensifies and it feels like all of your attention and energy goes into struggling with the urge. Having the urge to scratch your nose, or maybe even to eat the second doughnut may not have significant consequences, but what about urges that are more problematic?
Surfing the Urge
Keep in mind that an urge is simply a firing of neurons in your brain. You may or may not have control over urges, but with some practice you can learn how to deal with them differently and in a way that is more in line with how you want to live your life. First, you can notice that you are having an urge when it appears in your consciousness. When you notice an urge, label it as such:
I am having the urge to...
This is powerful - by bringing the urge into your consciousness you have already created some space to decide what to do with it. You can still give into it or you can decide to fight it or you can decide to surf it. Urge surfing means to come into contact and awareness of the urge, experience it for what it is, and not struggle or resist. Often, urges subside with time. This is why urge surfing is powerful - urges are like waves that rise and swell and then subside in power and strength.
How to Surf
Try this next time you have an urge to do something:
- Start with a few deep relaxing breaths.
- Notice the thoughts that are coming into your mind. Label these as thoughts. I am having the thought of...
- Notice the urge that you are experiencing. What does it feel like? Is there a certain place in your body that you are experiencing it?
- Keep noticing the thoughts that are emerging, perhaps related to the urge. Identify these as thoughts.
- Bring your attention back to the urge. Do you notice any changes in the quality or intensity of the urge? See if you can stay with this for just a little longer.
- Remember to keep breathing deeply and comfortably as you continue to notice how the urge changes over time.
The point of this exercise is not to resist the urge but rather to surf it, noticing how it changes over time. It also introduces a new relationship to urges, in addition to giving in or fighting, you can surf the urge as it swells and intensifies and then often subsides.