Urge surfing is an essential coping skill that many people learn during therapy, especially when they’re in residential addiction treatment. This technique is especially helpful for learning how to manage triggers and cravings more effectively and recognizing that long-term gains are more important. Here’s why urge surfing might help you, too.
Understanding Urge Surfing
While in recovery, especially in the first few months, it sometimes feels as though every negative thought or sensation is amplified to the highest degree. You might repeatedly remember fragments of difficult conversations, misdeeds, or abuse. You could also experience tingling, nausea, pounding headaches, muscle tension, and other uncomfortable physical symptoms, such as chronic pain.
When things are going well, it’s easy to acknowledge that mind and body changes are a form of progress. But when you feel overwhelmed, excessively stressed, or have a lot to reconcile from past trauma, these mental and physical challenges might seem like another brick added to a wall closing in around you. An individual’s distress tolerance level can reach its limit rather quickly—and this is often a key reason why they suffer with cravings and potentially relapse.
Urge surfing is a mindfulness-based technique that encourages individuals to approach and navigate their urges or cravings with conscious awareness rather than trying to resist or give in to them. It was developed in the early 1980s by Gordon Alan Marlatt, a noted clinical psychologist at the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington. Marlatt worked with other researchers in the fields of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) to create mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP).
DBT is one method for teaching people how to have better awareness of their internal environment. Individuals learn four methods to work through conflict, stress, and painful emotions:
- Cultivate mindfulness by being in the present moment.
- Manage distress tolerance to increase resiliency to, not avoid, trials and tribulations.
- Practice emotional regulation, the ability to manage and change difficult emotions.
- Boost interpersonal effectiveness by assertive and respectful communication.
With this foundation, Marlatt and his team outlined four key aspects of MBRP that urge surfing stems from, which we provide verbatim:
- Develop awareness of personal triggers and habitual reactions, and learn ways to create a pause in this seemingly automatic process.
- Change our relationship to discomfort, learning to recognize challenging emotional and physical experiences and responding to them in skillful ways.
- Foster a nonjudgmental, compassionate approach toward ourselves and our experiences.
- Build a lifestyle that supports both mindfulness practice and recovery.
For more than 30 years, Marlatt studied addictive behavior and the patterns of old habits. He identified that many people in recovery from substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD) frequently feel urges that prompt an impulse to return to old habits, or an urge to use again. He developed the urge surfing method as a way for an individual to recognize the physical and emotional sensations accompanying a craving or trigger but not judge or act upon them.
By ‘surfing the urge’ with simple acknowledgement—and not guilt, self-admonishment, or shame—and getting to the point where it passes, it’s easier to understand that cravings and triggers are temporary. This realization puts you back in control and helps build stronger distress resilience. Marlatt once said, “The focus is on identifying and accepting the urge, not acting on the urge or attempting to fight it.”
How to Practice Urge Surfing
Using core principles of mindfulness, here’s the general method for this technique.
- When you first start to feel uncomfortable physical or emotional sensations, acknowledge these cues—without judgment.
- Then, find a quiet place where you can sit or lie down for a few minutes.
- Close your eyes, and direct your attention to your breath. Notice the gentle rise and fall of your chest. Count to four with every inhale, and again on each exhale. Do this for a couple of minutes.
- Next, focus your internal gaze on the sensation that gave you an urge cue, such as dry mouth, shoulder tension, tingling in the fingertips or hands, or some other impression.
- If you had more of an emotional reaction, such as chest tightening, racing thoughts, or an “empty” feeling, shift your attention to those sensations.
- Use guided imagery to help you ride the wave of cravings—for example, maybe your breath ebbs and flows just like ocean waves on the shore. Use whatever visual helps you recognize the rise, crest, and fall of the urge.
- Acknowledge that you’re safe as you allow the urge to pass. Inhale deep from the belly and then release the breath in a slow, long exhale to finalize this realization.
- Now rate the urge, such as one being a mild experience and 10 being an intense craving.
If you’d like more direct guidance for this method, try this handout or watch the following videos:
- Three-minute urge surfing mindfulness meditation
- Urge surfing practice with Turn Team
- Urge surfing mindfulness exercise with Naomi Goodlet
Also consider expanding on your awareness by journaling about the experience or talking with your therapist or a 12-Step sponsor or support group about it.
Experience True Wellness at Ivory Plains
Our addiction rehabilitation program in Adair, Iowa utilizes an evidence-based approach to help you establish a strong foundation in recovery. Comprehensive whole-person treatment is more than just detoxification: it’s a multidimensional approach that helps you understand and release the past and then design the future on your terms. Talk to a member of our admissions team to learn how we can help you realize better ways of living.