Urge Surfing

This month, for the Skill of the Month I wanted to highlight one of the most useful skills I’ve encountered. Although taken from DBT, this skill is not one of Marsha Linehan’s “canon”. I ran across this skill through studying the work of Lane Pederson, PsyD, LP, DBTC. The skill is part of the Distress Tolerance module and it lends itself to wonderful and very helpful imagery!

The skill to which I am referring is called “Urge Surfing” and I hope to share with you why I find it so helpful. Imagine a surfer on the waves. She waits patiently for the swell, she paddles out to meet it and then she rides the wave, after which she returns to waiting for the next wave. This is the image you might use when thinking about and using Urge Surfing.

Much the same way that an actual surfer rides the wave, the idea in this skill is to recognize or accept that feelings are going to come in their own time and at their own speed and intensity. Instead of fighting this natural process, we’re going to remove the judgment we might place on this and simply ride it out. We know from prior work that our feelings can lead us to action and the actions I’m talking about here are “urges”. This may be the urge to eat a box of cookies, the urge to engage in self-harming behavior, or the urge to lash out and hurt others. I’m talking about unhelpful urges--things that after we do them, we feel guilt or remorse.

Returning to the example of the surfer, she is not running from the wave—she’s going to meet it. She’s not judging the wave with something like “this wave shouldn’t be here!” –she’s accepting that waves are a natural phenomenon. She knows that there is nothing she can do to change the size, shape, or duration of the wave (although she may wish that she had this power!) She knows that when this wave ends, there will be a period of calm before the next wave builds. She also knows that the wave will reach its peak and then it’s energy will be depleted and it will end. No wave goes on forever.

All of these are key concepts when practicing Urge Surfing. We are not trying to run away from our urges or feelings. We are accepting them as a natural part of the human experience. Similarly, we are not trying to change the feelings or urges. This is as pointless as the surfer trying to change the wave. Usually when we try to change the feeling or deny the urge we end up amplifying or prolonging the feelings and urges instead of lessening them. Just like the surfer who knows that acting impulsively on a wave may lead to disastrous consequences, we need to ride out the wave until it has naturally ceased.

Note the different sizes and shapes of the waves... each is unique!

Note the different sizes and shapes of the waves... each is unique!

To surf your urge, we are going to practice mindfulness skills. We simply observe the natural flow of emotion. Everyone has been sad or happy or anxious, or guilty at one time or another. Can you honestly say that you’re ALWAYS sad? ALWAYS angry? If you’re being honest, you can’t. That is because feelings rise and fall just like waves. Some waves are larger than others but in the end, they all recede back. Similarly, they may build again and we will experience the emotion again but it may be slightly different than the previous bout. So we simply observe what our emotion currently looks like. We can label it—name it—and then observe its size and shape. You can’t determine how long any wave will last—you must simply ride it out to find the length. It is imperative to keep in mind that the wave WILL END. You will not go on feeling this way forever. In the midst of a big wave, it might feel like you will drown. It might feel like this is the “new normal” for you but the reality is that even the biggest wave has to end at some point. Will there be a long period of calm before the next wave hits? There is no way to tell but we can be assured that this current wave is temporary as is everything in life.

Dr. Pederson recommends actually rating the intensity level of your wave from 1 to 10 or, more simply, acknowledging that it is low, medium or high. A surfer can see that this wave is bigger or smaller than the previous one or that its shape is different from the first so we are going to observe the size and shape of our wave of emotion as well—noting its intensity a few times throughout the duration of it. You might say something like “I am feeling a level 2 of anxiety at this moment.” Then, a few minutes later: “The wave is now at a level 3… now it is at a level 5… now it is at a 7… now it is a 3… now it is a 1… now it is gone.” Dr. Pederson recommends noting the intensity every 5 minutes—and actually writing it down can be very helpful for getting an accurate “read” because our brains can “feel” like a lot of time has passed when in reality, a very short amount of time has passed. Writing down the number has an additional benefit of giving you something else to think about as you go through the emotion. You might think of this as your surfboard! The things you can pay attention to mindfully are the actual time, the act of writing, the pencil in your hand, the paper beneath it… all things to which you can cling to as you ride the wave of emotion.

Note that we are not engaging in the urge behavior at any point during this exercise. You may think it is easier to track your urge rather than your feeling, substituting your urge behavior instead. This is not recommended as it MAY actually increase the urge and make it more difficult to control.

As we know, urges don’t actually come out of the blue—even though it may feel like it. They come because there is a feeling present whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. So, as you practice this skill, attempt to identify the underlying feeling that is contributing to your urge. If you have the urge to eat cookies or engage in some harmful behavior, as you begin to write down the level of your urge try to see if you can identify the feeling. For example “I feel lonely” or “I feel worthless” or whatever it might be. Remember not to judge the feeling. You then may be able to track the feeling instead of the urge. You can start by noting “I have the urge to…” and then stop yourself and really observe and even hunt for the feeling that is hiding there. Once you spot it, you can transfer to “I feel  (emotion) at an intensity of____”.

This is a very helpful skill for a variety of emotions. If you're experiencing grief, sadness, anger or frustration, remember that this feeling is a wave that will recede on its own without engaging in an urge which you think might make it better. If we can reduce the harmful behaviors, we are coping much more effectively than before. As you attempt to use this skill, I highly recommend really imagining the wave of emotion as an actual wave in the ocean. Imagine yourself watching and describing the wave. Imagine yourself paddling toward it on your surfboard and standing up to face that wave and actually riding it out! Use the imagery that this skill so easily lends for that makes it much easier to help reduce the tendency to engage in the urge.

Please remember that your feelings may be very intense and if you’re too overwhelmed, you may need to use other distress tolerance skills in addition to Urge Surfing, but I hope you’ll give it a try!