DBT Skills: Urge Surfing

In DBT class, we talked about Urge Surfing. To put it simply, Urge Surfing is when you are triggered and instead of acting on the urge you ride it out using positive coping skills. Urge Surfing scares me. Why? Because it requires feeling. I am pretty good at preventing negative feelings or stopping them from getting worse but once I am in them, when my urges are strongest, I find it extremely uncomfortable sitting with it. I have had therapists in the past ask me to sit with my feelings, ride them out in a safe way, but I have refused to do it as it is painful and risky. But, I went into DBT knowing that I would face challenges and I am probably more equipt to Urge Surf now than I was in the past so I will start practicing it.

The video below is the one we watched in class. The presenter explains Urge Surfing from an addiction perspective, but it can be applied to any impulsive behaviour or action that you would like to avoid. When you watch the video be safe as the presenter does mention substance use. He is amusing to watch though! If you do not have 17 minutes to watch the video I can provide you with some of my notes below the video.

When we feel these urges it means that, in our brains, we have neurologically we become programmed to want to engage in the urge. For example, after many years of cutting, my brain had become programmed to want to cut. It was often the first behaviour I thought of using when I was in distress. The good news is that we CAN rewire our brains to change this habit and go in a different, more positive, direction! This is when DBT skills come in.

How this whole process starts is with a trigger.This trigger brings about the urge (ie: to drink, cut, yell etc.). Physically, we start feeling the effects of stress as our body starts pumping it with cortisol (stress hormone). It is here that we have two paths (even though it doesn’t feel like it). One, you can give into the urge or you can resist. By giving into the urge you are reinforcing the cycle but by resisting you are beginning the process of rewiring your brain.

I know it doesn’t feel like it but every time you have an urge think, “I have a choice!” Even if your urge is a physical addiction you have a choice to seek support to stop using. Learning skills, like Urge Surfing, isn’t just something to help you cope in the moment, it is a fundamental skill that you can use throughout your life when experiencing any type of distress and demonstrates how we can be facilitators of change in our live.

So, this is the urge…

Despite how it feels, urges do not last forever. Urges are generally intense for 20-30 minutes so riding out that time is what will help you change your brain and sever the need for the behaviour. As you resist the urge the wave gets smaller and smaller, creating a new neural pathway. I am at the point now with cutting that it is not the first behaviour I think of when I am in distress or even if I think about doing it, the urge is not strong, and I continue to resist and find a healthy alternative.

Now, how do you surf an urge (this is the part the scares me but I will try)? You surf the urge by opening yourself up to the urge. This doesn’t mean that you consume yourself in it (which feels horrible) or fight it and push it away. What you do is experience the feeling of the urge with acceptance, non-judgement, and be sensitively aware that it is there.

What can we do while we wait for the urge to go away? Any DBT skill would be appropriate!

  • self-soothe using the 5 senses
  • distract
  • TIP

I used cutting as an example but the urge I fight with the most currently is the one that tells me to destroy everyone. When I am in distress I experience intense urges to yell and fight. I make grand assumptions and I hate everything. My usual course of action is to do what I can to avoid these feelings and then let it consume me if I was unsuccessful at stopping it (which is super painful).  To use Urge Surfing, I will need to work on accepting what I am feeling and showing myself compassion. This is a process I am willing to go through.


17 thoughts on “DBT Skills: Urge Surfing

  1. Excellent post. Might have to reblog this I think. I am really bad at just letting the urge to sink into the black hole consume me, I guess I am fortunate that it has never been a case of hurting myself or anyone else. In reading your post though, I think I can identify with riding it out. I’m beginning to think I don’t always go into the black hole, rather I am just riding it out. Could be the reason why sometimes it doesn’t take days/weeks to come out. Thanks

  2. Ironic, I just mentioned to my therapist this week that although I know what triggers me, I have no clue how to deal with it…

  3. Thank you…. i thought i was the only one who demolished everything ans everyone around her when i lost control and became overwhelmed…. i have only just found your blog and it has been so helpful… made me laugh,,, made me cry and and made me think….. “OH well that makes sense DUH!!!.”.. love it thanks xoxxo

    • Oh my you are amazing! Thank you so much for your comment! You are not the only one who completely loses control sometimes! You can gain control though with some hard work. It’s worth it! Thanks for reading!

  4. Pingback: DBT Skills: The Physical Side of Emotions | Pride in Madness

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