What is urge surfing?
Urge surfing is a mindfulness technique to help manage unwanted behaviours. Rather than succumbing to an urge, the idea is to ride it out -much like a surfer on a wave, until the urge subsides. Just like a wave coming to shore, the urge quickly builds up, peaks, and then over time it dwindles away. Urge surfing is used in a variety of health settings, including smoking cessation, but is also helpful in the context of food cravings. However much like actual surfing, it is something that will require practice and you are likely to crash a few times!
What is an urge? Urge definitions.
In the context of food, an urge is a sudden desire or craving to eat, often a specific food. It can come on very suddenly and be hard to ignore.
Whats the difference between and urge and hunger?
Urges are often short-lived. Unlike true hunger, which grows over time, an urge may only last around 30 minutes. However, if we focus or “feed” an urge, it can build. If you have an urge to eat chocolate, and you then spend the next few minutes thinking about whether or not to eat it, you may find it harder and harder to resist.
Conversely, if you find something to occupy your mind, you are more likely to forget about the chocolate and the urge will subside on its own.
Think of an urge like a wave. It grows, crests, and then falls away all by itself, if you don’t feed it. That’s where urge surfing comes in, learning to ride it out until it fades away.
Using urge surfing to break unhelpful habits
Giving in to an unhelpful habit cane be very stressful and feel overwhelming. If you’re feeling out of control of your body and thoughts, stuck in a vicious cycle, or acute guilt or shame when you give in to your urge, then this technique can help bring some relief and make it feel more manageable. Let’s think about these habits a bit more:
When we have an unhelpful habit, we quite often see a sequence of events
- Trigger: an event, time of day or emotional state acts as a trigger. Think about how being bored or stressed impacts your eating habits, or perhaps you always want a snack when you arrive home or with your mid afternoon tea.
- Urge: the trigger then causes you to feel the urge to act on your habit
- Habit: without any other action, chances are you’ll then act on your habit, such as eating outside of hunger
Breaking down a habit into these steps gives an opportunity to break it. Rather than viewing it as a single event that is hard to fight, there’s actually a gap between the trigger and doing the habit that you can make use of.
Surfing an urge gives you the time to take a step back and choose how to act rather than feeling completely out of control. It can also feel more manageable than fighting the urge, where you may experience more resistance.
How to surf an urge, what are the steps?
First things first, you may need to practice recognising an urge vs hunger. Don’t worry if you find this hard at first, practice makes progress! Take time to notice the sensation, do you have a craving for a specfic food/food group? If so it is likely an urge. Do you feel generalised hunger? Thing about when you last ate, what your physical sensations are and how you normally feel hunger.
The idea here is to not fight an urge, but to be aware of your feelings and sensations. It’s important to acknowledge that urges are natural and normal, and that they will fade away after a short period of time. Then you can gently steer yourself from the urge like riding along a wave.
The steps in urge surfing:
You can try an urge surfing mindful exercise here. Or try the steps below…
- – Focus on the sensations in your body and identify where you are feeling the affects of the urge and what thoughts you are having. What does it feel like or even look like in your mind. Acknowlege the urge and say to yourself that this will pass and it is time to get out that surf board.
- – Focus on one body part at a time and notice how the urge feels. This might feel tangible and obvious, or it might be more subtle. For example is it tingling, rushing, painful, throbbing?
- – Tune in to your breath; what are your breathing patterns? Focus on a part of the body related to breathing, such as your diaphragm or nose. Keep using your breath as a way to surf through the urge. Know it will pass.
- – Repeat tuning into your breathing and then coming back to focus on the next body part. How does the urge feel there? Try to be aware of changes in sensation.
How to notice sensations in urge surfing:
Not sure where to start with noticing sensations? Ask yourself these questions:
- Does it feel tight or loose?
- Does it feel hot or cold? Or does it have any temperature?
- Where can I feel the physical sensation of an urge?
- Is it a large or small area?
- How well defined does the area feel?
- How does breathing impact where and how the sensation feels?
Benefits of urge surfing:
Does it really work? Yes, when you use this technique correctly it can be very effective.
Urge surfing can be applied to a variety of behaviours and habits, making it a versatile tool to have in your tool kit. From an eating standpoint, it can be used to improve your relationship with food, manage the urge to binge and purge.
Using this technique can be a key part of relapse prevention in eating disorder treatment. Knowing how to manage urges can be helpful when the desire for a former behaviour crops up.
Urge surfing can be learnt fairly quickly, and doesn’t require any workbooks or courses to do. It is an accessible technique that you can try today, without necessarily needing a dietitian or mental health professional to guide you.
Limits of urge surfing
Urge surfing is just one tool, and ideally should be used as just one part of a treatment plan. For strong urges and addiction, urge surfing might be less successful or require more practice. This can feel disheartening, but isn’t a sign that you are failing. It just means that you need more tailored support beyond urge surfing.
Remember, we are all human and can’t resit all unhelpful urges 100% of the time. Aiming for perfection will set you up for failure, as sooner or later you’ll give in to one of the urges. Thinking about it as surfing waves on the beach, sometimes you’ll fall off, but you then have the choice to give up and wallow in self-pity or self-hate, or you can get back on the surfboard and try again.
Seeking further help
Sometimes we all need a bit of extra help. If you’re experiencing extreme stress or anxiety, or if the urge wave just seems far to big, seeking help and support is important.
One of the key books using in treatment of binge eating is called Overcoming BInge Eating and it’s a good one to read.
Other tools to remember to use:
- Stick to those regular meals and snacks as these are so key to helping break the binge-restrict cycle. Use my meal planner you can download here.
- Use your journal to reflect on your urge surfing and how you are feeling.
- Use distractions to help too, this may involve keeping away from the area where food is.
- Talk to your therapist about why these urges are happening and how to manage the feelings behind them,
To learn more about urge surfing and for more support, book in a consultation with the Dietitian UK team here.