Urge surfing is a technique that can be used to help you avoid acting on any behaviour that you want to reduce or stop. So for example if you wanted to stop smoking, biting your nails, over-eating, spending money compulsively, lashing out at someone in anger.
What often goes un-noticed with these unhelpful habits and addictions is that they start with an urge.
So what urge surfing teaches us is how to notice an urge or impulse arise without playing it out or exhausting ourselves fighting against it. Instead we simply learn to surf it. By practicing urge surfing, your brain gradually learns that it doesn’t have to react to its impulses, and those urges then lose their control over you.
We cannot stop the waves but we can learn to surf
Imagine that urges are like ocean waves that arise, crest and then subside. They are quite small when they arrive and then they tend to grow in size, and then eventually will dissipate and dissolve.
Surfers can trust that the even the biggest waves they ride will eventually get smaller and and dissolve and they can rest again. They know they won’t be stuck on a huge wave. So in a similar way we can learn to ride the ‘wave’ of any urge or impulse until it subsides, knowing that they always do. In fact research shows that almost all urges pass within 30 minutes if we don’t feed them.
Don’t feed or fight the feeling
So in what ways to we feed urges? We feed urges through ruminating about them, planning to fulfil them, trying to suppress them or flight them. Also by trying to talk ourselves out of the urge or distracting from them. So all of these strategies feed the urge then makes the urges bigger and tend to stay around longer.
The mindful understanding of urges is that it’s better not to try to get rid of the urge—instead we simply practice accepting them and riding them out without giving in to them. Urges then simply pass on their own when we leave them be. And we are then left free to choose more nourishing way behaving and living that lead to our fulfilment and wellbeing.
The mindful way through: The practice of ‘urge surfing’
1) The first step to urge surfing is to notice urges as they emerge. Once you do feel one coming, remind yourself that, like the tide, it will eventually recede.
2) Observe the urge as a witness, neither resist it nor get involved in the thought processes about it. Simply watch and feel the urge and any associated thoughts. See if you can meet the urge with a kindly curiosity and with acceptance. simply allow it to be there without reacting.
Think about the metaphor of a strong oak tree in a storm. Although there is disturbance see if you can stay rooted and grounded within awareness simply letting the storm of the urge pass. If the urge is particularly strong you may find it helpful to sit quietly and practice mindful breathing.
3) Take notice of your thoughts and feelings as they arise. Without judging them or fighting them; simply acknowledge them. Once acknowledged, return your attention to your breathing.
Don’t be forceful with the mind to focus on your breathing; Think of it more as gently anchoring awareness of you breathing and letting it soothe you with its flowing rhythm. Let it gently holds you in place as your urgent desires, and all the emotions they stir, drift on by.
4) Bring awareness to your body, to any areas you can feel sensations related to the urge or craving. Is there a sensation in the stomach, chest or any other areas? What does it feel like? Is there tension, heaviness or any other physical sensations?
Take notice, without judgement, on each in turn. Look at the experience objectively and with a sense of curiosity. Notice how your breathing affects the area.
5) Allow your attention to the various sensations of the urge become passive as you shift focus back to your breathing.
Continue to practice mindful breathing and observation of thoughts and feelings for as long as it takes the urge to pass, knowing fully well that it will, soon. Remember, don’t try to push the feelings away, just let the urge drift through like a cloud in the sky of your awareness.
You’ll notice that, with the new way you’re observing it, the urge will begin to change— lessening, dissipating, losing its power. As you practice ‘urge surfing’ more and more, you’ll find it can become like second nature and you’ll experience new degrees of freedom in the mind and wellbeing and fulfilment in your life.
P.S. If you enjoyed this post and you’re curious to know more about mindfulness for addiction and habit change, be sure to check out my Masterclass with Dr Judson Brewer: Mindfulness, The Most Effective Treatment for Addictions