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Urge surfing skill

by Izzy Brown, MA, LPC, R-DMT


We hear a lot about the word “skills.” Often, when we are seeking therapy, we want to learn skills that will help us better manage stressors and to replace maladaptive behaviors through the work of coping skills. Today I’d like to teach you about the coping skill known as “urge surfing,” one of my favorites.


Have you ever heard a therapist say, “sit with your uncomfortable feelings?” It’s exactly what you think it is if you have not heard this phrase. You are actively acknowledging an emotion that you view as uncomfortable, and you are sitting and feeling what this emotion is creating in your body. I invite you to take a moment to feel something uncomfortable, I know, it’s not a favorite AND through this exercise, you gain familiarity with your feelings! I encourage you to think of a challenge and notice what feelings come up. Maybe you failed an exam. Or you forgot to take out clothes in the washer. Or you forgot to call your grandma and wish her happy birthday. Take a minute to feel. What is coming up? Maybe you immediately want to shake it off, distract and get rid of the feeling that’s arising. And that’s okay! Our brain does not want us to be in uncomfortable situations so it will do anything to cope through it. From journaling to drinking, if it feels good, your brain will want more of it. Now, what happens if you are struggling with feeling uncomfortable feelings and then turn to maladaptive coping strategies? Examples include but not limited to drinking, smoking, cutting, restricting food.



Urge surfing is essentially feeling the uncomfortable emotion in your body but what I like about this skill is that there is a timeline. Sometimes our brains like to combat something that’s given if it logically does not make sense. Urge surfing provides this logic. Urge surfing is a mental technique that reduces the urge to act on a maladaptive behavior. Imagine a wave. You see the wave form, it begins movement, it rises and then falls! That is what happens to our bodies when wanting to act on a maladaptive behavior.


In urge surfing, you first have what’s called “trigger.” It is something or someone that caused you an uncomfortable feeling that awakens your maladaptive craving. Next you have “rise.” This urge becomes intense, and you clearly notice the maladaptive behavior you would like to use. Thirdly you have “peak.” This is the point where one acts on the behavior because the uncomfortable feeling is too much, and it feels as if it won’t go away. This is the meat of the skill. At the peak, I encourage you to write, draw, sing, call someone, distract yourself away from the urge. Finally, you have the last step called “fall.” Your brain realizes you will not move through the maladaptive behavior; therefore, your body naturally falls back to your window of tolerance aka your baseline. The urge is no longer intense, and you have surfed through this urge. You may need to ride the wave a few times and that is okay! Riding the wave means you are present and you are paying attention (aka feeling uncomfortable) to the rise and fall of your urges.

Here are a few reminders:

  1. Urges are temporary just like feelings.

  2. Temporary discomfort is extremely common. You do not need to change anything.

  3. Urges are natural reactions

  4. Having an urge does not mean you HAVE to go through with it. You have autonomy.

Remember, this is a mental technique. It could take 8 minutes, or it can take 25 minutes depending on the intensity of the urge. If you are struggling with maladaptive behaviors and would like to gain additional skills to cope through stressors in a way that healthily impacts you, and learn more in depth about urge surfing, visit our website at www.bellavalorepsychotherapy.com. Click on “about” and from there, you will be able to find a therapist you can connect with. We are a group of therapists based in the Chicago area ready to work with you! You are not alone.

-Izzy Brown, MA, LPC, R-DMT

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