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DBT Skills: Urge Surfing

Something that comes up a lot in BPD, but also a number of other disorders, is impulse control and urges.

It can be so hard to not give in. For example, when feeling angry, we might have an urge to scream at someone, say something hurtful, harm ourselves or any number of things.

It’s really important to learn how to cope with harmful impulses and urges.

One way to do this is what is called Urge Surfing. Urge surfing is about “riding the wave” of an urge. The longer you resist an urge, the stronger it seems to get, much like the building of a wave. If you do give into an urge, that teaches your brain that giving into the urge is the only way to make it go away. However, research has shown that urges generally last for 20 to 30 minutes. It may feel like it’s going to keep on getting stronger and stronger until you give into it, but much like a wave, it will break and go away if you can avoid it.

Trying to directly stop an urge can be difficult. If you have ever tried to swim directly against a wave, you know that it can be exhausting. Especially as it gets stronger, it can feel like a wave will overwhelm you. On the other hand, if you swim to the side or otherwise do not work directly against the wave, you can move out of its power or give it time to break and dissipate without using nearly as much energy. Working with urges can be exactly the same.

One way I resist an urge is the “not now, later” approach. With this approach, I tell myself that, “Okay, you want to do that thing? That’s fine, but it has to be later.” I find this works for a lot of things because when I outright tell myself, “no,” I find it harder to let go of the urge. By telling myself I can give into the urge, but do it later, I find I can ignore the urge in less discomfort and usually by the time later arrives (I like a “sleep on it” rule for later, depending on the situation), the urge has passed and I can move on. If I do this repeatedly, I teach my brain to understand that the urge will go away whether I act on it or not.

Some things that can be useful to do when Urge Surfing:

  1. Recognize and acknowledge that you are having an urge

  2. Notice and describe the thoughts and feelings you are having, without trying to change or suppress them. This may be uncomfortable, but that’s okay. Discomfort while feeling an urge is normal.

  3. Remind yourself:

    1. There is nothing wrong with having urges. They are normal and natural parts of having addictions, habits and desires.

    2. Discomfort is okay.

    3. An urge is a desire, not a need. I can have an urge and choose not to act.

    4. Urges are temporary. They will pass, whether I give into them or not.

Some other things you can do are focus on distracting yourself whether that’s by activities you like, grounding techniques or just overall keeping busy.

Remind yourself that you are in control. As hard as it is, you can choose not to act on your urge. It may feel impossible, but you can do it, and reminding yourself of that can help.

If it helps you, you can journal about your feelings and urges. Sometimes writing them down can help us realize why the urge isn’t good to give into. With that said, you can also spend some time thinking about why you shouldn’t do the thing you want to do. For example, you don’t want to yell at your friend because you know the feeling you’re experiencing is temporary and you don’t want to cause them unfair hurt which can also have lasting effects on your friendship. (With that said, if after you are calmer and you rationally think that cutting a friend off is better for your own mental health, then you should do that.)

And as time goes on, the urge should get less. This can help us because we are aware the discomfort we are in won’t last. If we feel like the discomfort won’t go away until we act on the urge, we are more likely to act on the urge to make it stop. Remind yourself that it will pass on its own.

Over time, Urge Surfing can help your brain learn that it doesn’t need to react to urges. It can help to make urges easier to avoid giving into, in the long-term.

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