Urge-Surfing: A DBT Skill to Control Cravings, Arguments, Panic Attacks, Difficult Emotions, and More!

Published on July 17, 2023

What is urge-surfing?

We have all been there in one way or another. We feel overwhelmed by an intense emotion and want to break down or explode. Maybe we feel engulfed by an oncoming panic attack. Or perhaps we want to smoke a cigarette or vape pen, or try to calm down with some weed and alcohol. Whatever the reason and the resulting behavior, all these examples and more are driven by intense emotions that feed into a lack of impulse control and the need to give in to urges.

I get it. It can feel exhausting and challenging not to just give in. For instance, when we feel stressed, we may have the urge to eat right out of the Ben & Jerry’s carton or to pour a glass of wine. We may feel the urge to say something cruel to someone or to yell at them. Maybe we get cut off in traffic and want to pursue the driver. We may want to even hurt ourselves.

Our urges and impulses have reasons behind them, but these reasons are not justifications to act on them. It is our responsibility to ourselves to learn how to effectively, healthfully cope.

One way to learn to control impulses and urges is called urge-surfing, a distress tolerance skill from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Simply put, urge-surfing is about “riding the wave” of an urge by controlling your impulse control. It is a mental trick. We are conditioned to think that the longer we resist the urge the more powerful it seems to become, much like a wave builds up to the crest before breaking down into the trough. However, if you surrender yourself to an urge, it trains our brains to think that the surrender is the one and only way to grant us psychological relief. This is not true. While an urge can feel like it is long-lasting and is getting stronger, the truth is that most pass within five to ten minutes. Just like a wave, it will dissipate.

Yes, I know, this is easier said than done. I fully admit trying to stop an urge can sound hard, maybe even impossible. If you have ever dared yourself to swim directly against a wave in the ocean, you know full well it can suck all the energy out of you. You may even fear getting caught in the undertow and swept out to sea. However, if you swim along the side of the wave, you can safely avoid much of its strength which in turn will let it break down with less force. Thus, applying the wave metaphor to our emotions makes sense.

How do I urge-surf?

The urge-surfing process is customizable. Play around with it until you find a pattern that works best for you! However, in general, it goes in the following sequence:

1. Stop. Take a breath in. Notice and acknowledge you are having an urge.

2. Pay attention to the emotions and thoughts you are experiencing, while picking up cues from the situation too. There is no need to try to change, drown out, or avoid them. It may all feel very unpleasant, even uncomfortable, but that is to be expected.

3. Tell yourself the following mantas. Some can be changed to your specific issues:
- “It is okay and normal to feel discomfort.”
- “It is not weird or wrong to have urges. All people have them. They come from having desires, wants, habits and addictions.”
- “An urge is a want, not a need. I need food. I do not need it to be a slice of chocolate cake.”
- “I can still have the chocolate cake, but I can save it for later. It does not need to be right now.”
- “To have an urge is out of my control. What is in my control is deciding not to act on it!”
- “All urges are short-lived and temporary. They will pass. I can get through them.”

Urge-surfing can also be helpful in preventing anxious feelings from evolving into panic attacks. You may try a mantra such as, “a panic attack can be scary, but I can recognize it before it hits its peak. I can do something like deep breathing to avoid it from becoming a full-blown panic attack.”

Above all, remember… you are in control. It is true you cannot prevent an urge from arising, but you do have the power to not act on the urge.

How urge-surfing helps with nicotine withdrawal

Urge-surfing is something I frequently teach to clients who are trying to quit smoking/vaping. I do this through two parts.

First, I educate my clients that nicotine withdrawal reaches its peak at around 72 hours or 3 days. If we figure the average person sleeps for 8.5 hours, that comes out to 25.5 hours the urge to smoke/vape is eliminated. Now add in other factors that can prevent the behavior. If you have a typical 8-hour workday, that is 24 more hours you cannot smoke (I did not add in breaks because this varies by state laws and businesses). Those two activities alone come out to 49.5 hours you cannot smoke/vape, so you only need to figure out solutions to the remaining 22.5 hours! You can then plug in other additional activities that can prevent you from being able to smoke/vape, such as time for hobbies and interests, meals, social situations where it is unacceptable (i.e., restaurants, watching your child play soccer, etc.).

Second, I tell my clients that as a further motivational tool to keep them from giving into the urge, they can replace their “smoke times” with other tasks that provide distraction. In your case, think about how long it takes for you to smoke or vape. This is probably 5 to 10 minutes; thus, you need to find a replacement behavior for that 5-to-10-minute time frame. For example, if you like to have a cigarette the first thing in the morning and that takes 6 minutes for you, you only need to distract yourself with anything else for 6 minutes. This could be a guided meditation, quick yoga session, giving more time to enjoy your breakfast, putting extra effort into your hair and make-up, reading the news, or even browsing social media (although for this last one I suggest you exercise caution because social media can also be an addiction).

Obviously, urge-surfing can work for other addictions too. I also suggest urge-surfing for other problematic behaviors such as self-injury.

How urge-surfing can prevent arguments

Urge-surfing is a key tool to help prevent arguments. Think back on a time you felt hurt, offended, or angry at a friend or family member. You may have screamed at them or said something callous to feel better… and yes it made you feel powerful at the time, but it came with consequences, right? Perhaps you were later plagued with guilt. Even worse, the person may have stopped talking to you and you were fearful your relationship with them had ended. As you reflect on the incident, you recognize that there could had been a good outcome if you responded differently to the person – even if they were in the wrong.

When it comes to interpersonal conflicts, urge-surfing can work by having you pause to consider the consequences of acting on the urge to scream and so on. You can stop to notice how you think and feel, remind yourself that the emotion is temporary but the urge may have permanent bad results, and decide how to proceed (this is a DBT skill called “STOP”; detailed here). You can also think of ways you can distract yourself in the moment, such as with these DBT distress tolerance skills. Or you could tell the person, “I feel myself getting angry and wanting to say something I don’t mean, so I am going to walk away right now. Please give me space so I can calm down.” 

Journaling as a method to urge-surf

Finally, you may find it beneficial to journal about your urges as they relate to your impulses, thoughts, emotions, and experiences. There is something liberating about writing down your innermost issues; it serves as an emotional, cognitive, and spiritual release from the pain. Journaling can tap into your inner wisdom by having you make connections about why giving into an urge can be harmful. Furthermore, journaling can let you come up with solutions about how to get through the problem in a healthy way. It can also let you think of what could happen if you continue to surrender to the urge (i.e., chronic alcohol use can lead to cirrhosis). 

Final thoughts

In summary, urge-surfing is important because it teaches us that an urge will lessen in its intensity as time passes. At the peak of an urge, it can feel like our discomfort will consume us unless we act on it to quell it. However, by doing that it only conditions us to have to act on it no matter what, which ironically makes it stronger. Instead, remind yourself that all urges will pass, decrease in frequency as you become more skilled, and that all you are the master of your actions.

Celebrate your victories when you urge-surf to get through a situation. See it as a reminder you are in self-control.

As you become better at learning to control yourself by not giving in to urges, your brain will adapt to these newfound changes. This will make it far easier to resist the pressure of surrendering to urges throughout the rest of your life!

- Valerie Smith, LMSW

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