Written by therapist Annmarie Schoenbeck
From the shore, the water looks predictable—welcoming even. The monotonous ripple of the waves rising and falling. The tide quickly rushes up to your feet, and then just a fast– it retreats, and falls back to the ocean, leaving you standing in a puddle of soft sand. You take your board and swim out past the smaller waves, and towards the calmness of the deeper ocean. Quickly, the peaceful water begins to roll, gaining speed and height. This water that once was serene now threatens to overtake you, and you are left with a choice. You can choose to be swept up or under by the coming waves, or you can steady yourself and ride them to shore.
Just like surfers have the choice of how they respond to the coming waves, all of us have similar decisions regarding how we respond and react to the emotions and maladaptive (unwanted or harmful) behaviors we experience. If you ever find yourself feeling overtaken by the metaphorical waves of life, learning to lean in riding those waves or learning to practice “urge surfing” can be a helpful tool to have on hand for when life inevitably gets overwhelming.
What Is Urge Surfing?
Learning to ride the wave or urge surfing is a practice that comes from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). DBT is an evidence-based psychotherapy that combines Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with mindfulness practices in order to help treat a wide variety of behavioral patterns. DBT focuses on helping people learn to tolerate negative emotions through distress, tolerance, and emotional regulation skills like urge surfing. Riding the wave or urge surfing is a technique that can help us to be mindful of our emotional patterns and destructive impulses without letting those emotions or impulses overtake us. These waves often come up suddenly, they reach their peak and begin to fall. Riding the wave looks like taking a nonjudgmental posture so that we can observe and describe the waves of our urges and emotions as they happen. The more we work to non-judgmentally observe and describe these experiences, the easier it will be, and eventually, we will begin to notice how these urges begin to subside.
Why Should I Ride the Wave?
Often when we feel overwhelmed by our emotions or urges it can feel best or easiest to give in to those feelings. When we respond to our urges by acting on those impulses, we send a message to our brain that says “the only way to make this urge go away, is to act on it”. Research suggests that urges usually last for about 30 minutes, which means that these feelings will pass soon– regardless of whether you act on your impulses or not! When we ride the wave and pause, take a nonjudgmental inventory of what we are feeling, let those feelings rise and fall, and eventually return back to baseline, we are helping ourselves respond to distress more effectively and with time the urges and emotions will have less control over you.
Where Do I begin?
When you begin to experience strong emotions, it can be helpful to stay present in those moments. Remind yourself that these feelings will pass! Try breaking down your urge surfing into smaller intervals: set a timer for a few minutes, knowing that you can withstand these feelings for a few minutes. When that timer goes off, revisit those thoughts and feelings and see if they are more manageable. While you ride the waves and are waiting for the next timer to go off, it can be helpful to utilize other DBT distress tolerance skills. A few simple skills that might be helpful are breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, holding on to something cold, or lighting a scented candle. While it may feel uncomfortable at first, as time continues on you will notice the negative emotions and urges will eventually begin to subside.
We All Have Waves to Ride!
Sometimes floating in the water and noticing that the waves are beginning to rise can feel like an isolating and scary experience. As you begin to learn how to ride the wave it is important to remember that you are not alone, and the shore is never too far away!
If you are looking for someone to come alongside you as you begin to learn to ride the waves of your emotions and urges– or if you have questions or would like more individualized support consider reaching out to a therapist and together you can learn to spot the waves as they arise and ride them safely to shore!