Facing Those Gnarly Emotional Waves

Photo by John Witzig

Photo by John Witzig

I recently learned about urge surfing. This mindfulness practice offers an alternative to white-knuckling through an impulse or craving. Psychologist Alan Marlatt, PhD, used this concept when working with clients recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction. But the technique seems useful for any addictive behavior or bad habit.

Research suggests that suppression of urges tends to make them more intense. But giving in to them isn’t the answer either. Instead, if we give our mindful attention to our urges, we can ride the wave and experience the sensation of them passing.

The theory is that urges eventually dissipate by themselves. They tend to rise, reach a peak, and then subside. These tips can be helpful if you’d like to try urge surfing:

  1. Keep your breathing steady. Breaths should be full yet natural.
  2. Notice any physical sensations in your body. Where do you feel them? Does your body feel loose or tight? Hot or cold?
  3. With compassion, become aware of your thoughts and feelings. Observe whether they change as you focus on your breath.

The idea is to accept the urge so that you can diffuse it. In reading about urge surfing, I was reminded of Tara Brach’s R.A.I.N. approach to dealing with painful emotions or difficult thoughts.

  • Recognize: Notice the experience you’re having.
  • Allow: Accept the reality of the thoughts or feelings that are present.
  • Investigate: With compassion, consider where the thoughts or feelings are coming from
  • Non-identify: See the experience as part of you but it’s not your whole identity.

While these steps sound simple, they are very difficult. Allowing a painful emotion to be present and experienced can be terrifying, especially for trauma survivors. It’s OK to give yourself a break from these emotions. We have to be careful to not oversimplify urge surfing or R.A.I.N. or to dismiss how emotions can become overwhelming.

What was missing in explanations of urge surfing that I found was the importance of creating safety around this practice. If you know you’re going to be facing a situation that might trigger difficult emotions or cravings

  • Find a way to ground yourself. Notice your surroundings. Feel your feet on the floor. Notice sounds or smells around you.
  • Allow yourself to have some mindful distractions. You don’t have to feel everything all at once.
  • Be aware of your inner critic who might have a lot to say about your urges. Sometimes we judge our reactions, which just amps up the anxiety, triggering impulses.
  • Connect to self-compassion—even for your inner critic.

And most important, you don’t have to weather the storm alone. Deep healing comes when we allow for human connection. But I’ll save that scary kettle of fish for next time.

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