Independent Guide to Care in North Wales

Urge Surfing: Riding the Waves of Compulsion

DBT or Dialectical Behavioural Therapy works to teach mindfulness skills that people can utilise thoughts, emotions and urges experienced. One of these skills.

What is urge surfing? It is the mindfulness technique that teaches you to make it through an urge or compulsion without acting on any destructive impulses. When you first notice an urge, rather than fighting it and trying to get it to ‘stop’, just imagine that you are riding on a surfboard, gliding along with the wave until it dissipates into the ether.

You should notice the shifting sensations, and monitor how they rise and how they fall, how they come and how they go. Try to observe and describe the urge in a non-judgemental way as objective as you can.

How does one ride a wave?

Just like the waves of the vast ocean, urges rise from the depths of our emotions, they build up to a cresting point, and then they fall away. As the intensity of an urge builds, it feels like it's going to get worse and worse and worse and if you don’t give in then it's going to last forever or come unmanageable. When you experience an urge, and then act upon the impulse, your brain makes the association that you can only make the urge disappear by engaging in the behaviour in question. However, research can tell us that urges can last as much as 20 or 30 minutes and so, the urge will eventually pass away whether or not you engage in the behaviour. Over a period of time, you are able to reprogramme your brain that it's impossible to experience an urge without acting on it.

So, how can we start to change these connections in our brain?

A good way to learn to urge-surf is by breaking it down into some different steps. Why not set a timer, and when the timer goes off, re-look at your urge level, you should be able to see it ride and then fall away. This should give you some empirical, first-hand evidence of how to ride a wave of urge.

What can you do while you’re waiting for the urge to pass?

Most of any of the DBT distress tolerance will help in this case! But don’t forget that anything that distracts, relaxes or changes your physiology is really helpful in assisting you to ride the wave. Below are some examples that you may find effective

  • taking a hot bath

  • focus on your breathing for 5 minutes

  • call a friend or family member

  • play your favourite songs

  • Watch some of your favourite youtube videos

  • Light up a scented candle, or use some other forms of aromatherapy

  • Imagine yourself a nice, relaxing scene or go through a pleasurable memory through your mind.

  • Write down some encouraging statements to yourself as if you are speaking to a good friend.

Remember this is the hardest it will be, the more you practise this, the more your brain realises that it doesn't have to react to the urges and compulsions, as such they lose control over you, will lessen and eventually, disappear completely.

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