Urge Surfing: A Distress Tolerance Skill

At Columbus Park, we use Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to teach mindfulness skills that patients can use to better tolerate the thoughts, emotions, and urges they experience. One of those skills is urge surfing.

What is urge surfing?

Urge surfing is a mindfulness technique used to get through an urge without acting on destructive impulses. When you notice an urge, rather than fighting against it, imagine you are on a surfboard riding with it. Notice the shifting sensations, how they rise and fall, come and go. Try to observe and describe the urge in a nonjudgmental and nonattached manner.

How do you ride the wave?

Like waves, urges rise, building up to their cresting point, and then fall. As the intensity of an urge builds, it feels like it is going to keep on getting worse, and that if you don’t give in to it, it will last forever. When you experience an urge and then act on the impulse, your brain makes the connection that you can only make the urge go away by engaging in the behavior.  However, research tells us that urges typically last for 20-30 minutes, which means the feeling will pass whether you engage in a behavior or not. Over time, you are able to reteach your brain that it is possible to experience an urge without acting on it.

So how do you get your brain to start making that connection?!?

One way to surf the urge is by breaking it down into 1 or 5 minute intervals – set a timer, and when the timer goes off – reassess your urge.  In this way, you can make the time riding out the urge more manageable and break the connection between the urge and behavior.

What can you do while you wait for the urge to pass?

Most any of the DBT distress tolerance skills would be suitable!  In DBT, we love acronyms, and I’ll go into further detail about crisis survival skills like TIP, ACCEPTS, and IMPROVE in future blogs.  In general, finding things that distract, relax, and/or change your physiology are helpful in riding the wave.  Below are some examples you might find effective:

  • Hold ice in your hand, or against your face/forehead/neck
  • Take a warm shower
  • Take a few minutes to focus on your breathing – slow and steady.
  • Call a friend or family member
  • Play a playlist of your favorite songs
  • Watch funny You Tube videos
  • Light a scented candle or use some scented lotion or oils
  • Imagine a very relaxing scene or re-pay a joyful memory in your mind
  • Say encouraging statements to yourself as though you are talking to your best friend

By practicing urge surfing, your brain learns that it doesn’t have to react to its impulses, and those urges lose their control over you.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf” – Jon Kabat-Zinn