How urge surfing developed

The term urge surfing was first introduced by Dr. Alan Marlatt in the early 1980s. It was part of his work in developing the ‘Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention’ approach to treating addictive behaviours.

Origins in treating addiction

A pioneer in psychological flexibility, Dr. Alan Marlatt recognised that urges are part of the process of addiction recovery. Sometimes they lead to relapse, but also to learning and growth.

So instead of meeting cravings with feelings of shame, we’re better off accepting them and suspending judgement of ourselves. Managing urges is essential for change. Self-compassion maintains a space inside us for impulses to rise, and to fall away again.

In his clinical practice, G. Alan Marlatt worked with a client who was trying to give up smoking. This client happened to be an avid surfer too, and the concept of surfing his urges came out of their conversations. He could relate to the notion of a wave of energy surging, building up and up, then rapidly cresting and falling away into nothing.

Alan Marlatt suggested that if his client could ride out his urges and cravings without distress, they could pass much more easily.

Treating difficult emotions too

Renowned psychologist Marsha M. Linehan incorporated urge surfing into her development of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). This is a form of psychotherapy that combines behavioral science with acceptance and mindfulness.

In DBT practice, the technique is referred to as emotion surfing. The approach takes very similar steps for managing difficult feelings such as disappointment, resentment and anger. Clients can learn to surf the parts of their emotional experience that cause them distress or discomfort, with the same emphasis on acceptance rather than reaction.

This was an advancement of the key technique, from the realm of addiction recovery and rehab to mood management and mindfulness skills. Marsha M. Linehan’s lab at Washington University was next door to G. Alan Marlatt’s lab, so some serendipitous sharing of ideas probably took place.

Defusing from thoughts and feelings

Since then, urge surfing and emotion surfing have been adopted by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) practitioners. As the name suggests, acceptance is a major part of this model. Psychotherapist and author Russ Harris recommends using surfing techniques to accept difficult urges and defuse from unhelpful thoughts and feelings.

In some form or other, the urge surfing technique has become embedded into mainstream psychotherapy and mindfulness practices.

A valuable skill for turbulent times

Ultimately, urge surfing is a way to face our feelings with curiosity instead of self-judgement and despair. And with all the triggers and stressors in our lives these days, we are better equipped when we know how to surf out urges and emotions.

Urge surfing is an exercise in psychological flexibility. It’s about discovering that we have more agency in our impulses, feelings and thoughts than we previously realised.

And that’s an empowering and hopeful realisation too.