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What is Urge Surfing and How Can It Help My Recovery?

- 4 sections

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

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Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

When you think about surfing, you might imagine a person riding the edge of a wave, gliding expertly across the surface under a curl and out the other side. As waves swell and crash, surfers navigate the chaos and stay above, resisting being pulled under by using their knowledge and experience.

Surfing is a great metaphor for getting through recovery. Many people believe that all it takes to recover is enough willpower or strength of character. This simply isn’t true. People in recovery need skills, practice, support, and compassion. They need to learn how to manage challenges and resist urges and build a toolbox of skills that allow them to get through to the other side without relapse.

Urge surfing is a technique people in recovery can learn during rehab or at any point in recovery.

Reach out to the Carolina Center For Recovery specialists today to find high-quality substance abuse treatment or support at any stage of your recovery journey.

What is an Urge?

When we talk about an urge in recovery, it means the compulsion to use a substance or a craving. People experiencing an urge feel like they want to use a substance and are willing to go out of their way to get it.

Cravings and urges can cause people to act impulsively, jeopardizing their progress in recovery. People with addiction must develop the skills to identify the causes of their urges and learn how to get through them without relapsing.

Common things that may trigger an urge include:

  • Uncomfortable feelings like anxiety, sadness, and anger
  • Isolation
  • Situations, people, environments, or events related to substance use
  • Low self-esteem
  • Hopelessness

An urge may be intense and feel irresistible. Without having the skills to manage them, people may give in to impulses and get caught in a destructive cycle of substance abuse.

What is Urge Surfing?

Old recovery models focus on people’s strength and willpower to stay sober. Relying on willpower alone can leave people vulnerable to urges and cravings–and can result in repeated relapses.

Willpower alone often can’t match the intensity of an urge to use drugs and alcohol. Cravings are often deeply-rooted in your behaviors, emotions, and biology. Instead of just relying on your personal strength to avoid relapse while facing an urge, you must have concrete tools to use.

Urge surfing is an effective tool people can use to ride out a craving. People learn to pay attention to the emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that come before an urge and use mindfulness to “ride the wave” until it dissipates.

Urges can be like ocean waves. Some are large and strong, and some are small and easy to navigate. By learning the patterns that lead up to an urge, you can anticipate that it will occur– and that it will end. This can motivate you to stay focused on recovery, even when it’s challenging.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Urge Surfing

Urge surfing is a form of mindfulness that encourages you to focus deeply on what is happening in this current moment– instead of what has happened in the past or will happen in the future.

Here are the steps you can take to learn and practice urge surfing:

  1. Sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed. Make sure you are comfortable and that there are no distractions to pull your attention away.
  2. Pay attention to what your urges feel like. Are they physical? Do you have any strong emotions? What thoughts are coming up?
  3. Without judgment, describe your thoughts, feelings, or sensations.
  4. After spending a few minutes focusing on the urge, turn your attention to how you’re breathing. Notice your breath’s rhythm.
  5. Return your focus to your urge. Notice the sensations again and identify any changes.
  6. Notice that as your breathing becomes more relaxed, you may notice a reduction in the intensity of your cravings.
  7. Repeat this pattern until your breathing is slow, calm, and controlled, and your urge subsides.

Many people find that they can “ride the wave” of an urge by controlling their breathing and paying attention to the thoughts, sensations, and emotions related to their craving. Simply giving the urge attention and controlling your breath can remind you of your ability to resist it. In time, practicing urge surfing may become one of the most valuable skills you use in recovery to avoid relapse.

Get Help Now

Urge surfing is just one of the valuable tools you can use to manage the symptoms of addiction and avoid relapse. Addiction treatment can help you realize you are not powerless against substance use. Contact the Carolina Center For Recovery staff today to learn about starting one of our supportive, effective substance abuse treatment programs.