Urge Surfing

In Urge Surfing, we essentially view the urge to use a behavior as an ocean wave that will roll in, crest, and subside. If you look at the diagram below you will see the straight line marked “baseline.” At baseline, you feel “okay,” you are not experiencing any urges to use behaviors. If you look at the left side of the diagram you will see the word “trigger.” A trigger can occur right before the urge starts to rise, or it could happen hours or even a day before. But some event, feeling, experience or thought will ‘trigger’ an urge to use a behavior. As the urge intensifies you see the bell curve rising toward the very top, or the highest point of intensity, which is marked “choice.” Typically, this highest point is where you would act on the behavior (purge, cut, binge etc). The vertical line down from the top of the curve to the baseline illustrats the effect of acting out in the behavior. It basically brings you back to baseline and eliminates the urge. It may be accompanied by residual feelings of shame or guilt, but it nonetheless eradicates the urge.  If the urge is allowed to naturally subside, it would progress down the right side of the bell curve back to baseline. So, in essence, you will get to the same spot, whether you act on the urge or whether you allow it to naturally crest and subside. The ‘trick’ is surfing the wave and riding out the time between the point of highest intensity and the wave subsiding on its own. Filling that time with coping skills helps you to successfully ride the wave. As people become more proficient in ‘urge surfing,’ the waves become incrementally smaller. Eventually people become aware of triggers and immediately begin applying coping skills, thus circumventing the urge entirely.

Realistically, this curve is also a model of recovery. We begin by working on the right hand side of the curve, practicing coping skills in relation to urges/behaviors while we study what the triggers are. Triggers are easily identified by answering the questions below the diagram over 5-10 trials. Once the triggers are identified, we can make a plan for how to cope ahead. In other words, if you know that you are going to be in a triggering situation, you can make a plan ahead of time for how you will take care of yourself when you are face to face with the trigger. Very often we make beautiful plans, you go out and try it, and it…fails miserably! WHAT? It’s true. But this is not a bad thing. Instead it helps to uncover a core issue that we then work on resolving. Very often the core issues are feeling unworthy, like a burden or that you are not allowed to have a voice. Once you work on resolving these issues (or whatever your specific core issues might be), the urges dissipate entirely and the curve itself ceases to exist…and you have entered recovery.  Give it a try! See the instructions below!




Reflect over the past  24 hours and answer the following questions:

  1. Has anything upsetting happened? If so, what? Who was involved?
  2. Who have I spent time with?
  3. What emotions did I experience? Was there a predominant emotion?
  4. Where have I spent my time?
  5. What kinds of thoughts occupied my mind?
  6. Did I have any flashbacks or memories?


© 2000 by Monika H. Ostroff