What You Need to Know About Urge Surfing

At Columbus Park, we rely on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to teach our patients mindfulness skills, such as urge surfing, that help them better handle their challenging thoughts, emotions, and urges.

Let’s take a closer look at urge surfing, a distress tolerance skill. 

Urge surfing is a mindfulness technique that is used to get through an urge without engaging in destructive behavior. Rather than fighting against their impulses, we encourage patients to imagine they are on a surfboard and riding a wave. We want them to notice the shifting sensations and the rise and fall motions of the water. As they imagine this experience, we ask them to observe and describe their urge in a nonjudgmental and unattached way.

But how do you “ride the wave”?

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

Similar to waves, urges rise, build to their highest point, and then fall. As an urge intensifies, it often feels like it’s going to keep getting worse — like if you don’t engage in the behavior, it’ll last forever. This feeling can be very overwhelming! There’s a neurological reason for this experience: When you encounter an urge and then impulsively act on it, your brain makes a connection that you can only make the urge go away by giving into it. 

Research, though, reveals that urges typically last for 20 to 30 minutes, meaning the feeling will pass whether you engage in the behavior or not. In time, you can reteach your brain to experience an urge without acting on it. One way to “ride the wave” is by dividing it into one to five minute intervals. Set a timer, and each time it goes off, reassess your urge. The time spent “surfing the urge” becomes more manageable, allowing you to break the link between the urge and the behavior. 

What’s the best way to pass the time during an urge?

You want to find things to distract, relax, and/or change your physiology as you ride the wave. In fact, nearly any DBT distress tolerance skills work well! Here are some effective options to consider:

  • Focus on your breathing. Breathe in for four counts and then out for four counts. Keep it slow and steady.
  • Hold ice in your hand or against your face, forehead, or neck.
  • Take a warm shower.
  • Call a loved one.
  • Listen to your favorite songs. 
  • Watch some funny videos on YouTube!
  • Light a scented candle or use some scented lotion and really focus on the smell.
  • Replay a joyful memory in your head.
  • Imagine a very relaxing scene. For instance, pretend you’re lounging in a hammock on the beach, feeling the sunshine on your skin and listening as the ocean waves roll in and out.
  • Repeat positive affirmations to yourself, as though you’re talking to your best friend.

As you practice urge surfing, your brain learns that you don’t have to react to your impulses. In time, those urges lose their control over you.


If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out to our team at info@columbuspark.com to discuss treatment options.