Confession time … I love bagels. As a native New Yorker, it’s in my DNA to be pulled towards them. Unfortunately, it’s also in my DNA to metabolize carbohydrates poorly, so bagels aren’t really something that I should be eating regularly (according to my doctor, at least!). And yet, every day on my way to work, I get a strong urge to enter that bagel store and get the biggest, most delicious bagel I can. This example might sound familiar to people who have struggled with substances or behaviors, the pull to use or engage in a behavior that washes over you like a wave and begs you to come back to old behaviors.

That wave is a craving, which is a natural and normal part of life. It is your brain’s attempt to satisfy a dopaminergic desire for something that the brain has decided is really, really good for it (even if you know that it isn’t so good for you!). There are many ways to cope with cravings, everything from using distraction and self-soothing skills to going to support groups and meetings. And yes, these can help at times when a craving hits. At the same time, having only a few go-to skills that you use can be problematic … what happens if that skill isn’t working for you today, or if there isn’t a meeting nearby? We need to enlarge our skill base so we have more coping skills available to us if and when we need them. 

Urge Surfing

One such skill is called Urge Surfing, which is a very common term that is used in the recovery community. If we think of cravings as we mentioned earlier, like a wave that comes over us, then we know that it doesn’t just materialize at full strength out of nowhere. Like a wave, it begins as a small swell, like a bump on an otherwise smooth ocean. Then, as it moves along, it grows in size and strength until it naturally crests and crashes over into the sea. After that, it calms back down again.

Urge Surfing is the act of riding that wave, like you would if you were a surfer riding a wave into shore. Alan Marlatt, a pioneer in the field of substance use treatment and the developer of the concept of Urge Surfing, points out that we can’t get rid of cravings. Like waves, they come back again and again, forever crashing into and washing over you. If you can work on accepting this as a reality, then you can use your breath and your attention to ride the wave out. This requires being mindful of the process and engaging with the wave, rather than trying to run from it or stand strong through it.

How to Surf an Urge

Before we start to practice urge surfing, we have to be thoughtful about what we are asking of yourself. We will be asking you to come in contact with a thought or feeling that might be uncomfortable for you, and we will be asking you not to run away from that feeling, rather to sit with it and engage with it. That is a lot to ask of anyone, so start by being compassionate to yourself if this is hard for you! Of course it is, it’s hard for everyone! 

For this practice, start by choosing something that isn’t your most intense craving or difficult behavior. Once you have one in mind, you can either follow the script below or you can listen to this recording from the University of Washington’s Addictive Behaviors Research Center, which will walk you through an urge surfing meditation.

  1. Sit comfortably in a chair or on a mat or pillow with your back relatively straight.  If sitting is not comfortable you can lie down.
  2. Close your eyes.  Focus your attention for a few minutes on your breathing.
  3. In your mind’s eye, picture the challenging situation where you have the urge to act on impulse or engage in the behavior you are trying to change. 
  4. Notice the thoughts, emotions, or physical situations that come…and go.
  5. If cravings or urges occur, just observe them.
  6.  Notice how the cravings and urges are like waves:  they rise, they crest, they fall. Stay with the experience and observe the waves.  Even though you are no reacting in this moment, the cravings and urges fall; they subside.  They may rise again and subside again. You are like a surfer riding a wave. Try to enjoy the freedom of observing while no needing to react.
  7. As you think about your experience of cravings and urges, you may notice that some are more intense than others.  Some may feel like a little ripple while others feel like a tidal wave. Notice that you can be present and not react.
  8. Notice that you can be present and not react, that you can experience cravings and urges and not react.
  9. Now, let go of the imagined scenario and return your attention to your breathing.
  10. Open your eyes if they were closed and bring your attention back into the room.

After you’re done with this experience, it can be helpful to take a moment to think through what that experience was like. If you’re someone who journals, now might be a good time (or a good time to start!), and if not, maybe just take a minute to reflect on the process.

Urge surfing isn’t easy, yet it is a very effective and powerful way to cope with difficult cravings that will naturally arise. And, just like surfing a real wave, the more you practice, the more skilled you will get at riding out that craving.