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Urge Surfing: Riding Out the Craving

They walked across the sand in the early morning light, surfboards under their arms. They strode into the surf. As the water grew deeper, they stretched out on their boards and paddled out. They turned to face the shore, waiting for a wave. A wave came, and they rode it to shore, feeling the ocean’s power beneath them.

Surfing is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. In 2019, the International Surfing Association estimated that 35 million people worldwide surfed and anticipated that the number would rise. Surfing has captured our imaginations and been the subject or backdrop for many movies and songs. It has also inspired a method called “urge surfing” to “ride out” a craving.

Background of “Urge Surfing”

“Urge surfing” is a type of mini-meditation. The term is ascribed to G. Alan Marlatt, Ph.D., founder and director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington.

According to Marlatt’s interview in the magazine Inquiring Mind, Marlatt worked with a man who wanted to quit smoking. The man happened to be a surfer, so Marlatt used surfing terminology in conversation with the man. Marlatt explained that urges, like ocean waves, grow bigger and bigger as they near the shore, and then they dissipate. Urges don’t last forever, and neither do waves; both dissipate. The smoker was learning to meditate as part of the center’s program; Marlatt encouraged him to think of his breath as a surfboard that would enable him to “ride out” the urge. The smoker used the surfing analogy as he worked to ride out the urge to smoke, and after about five weeks, he had stopped smoking completely.

How to Urge Surf

If you want to try urge surfing, remember that it is a form of mindfulness. Urges will pass by themselves, but urge surfing gives you a different way of outlasting the craving.

As you begin to experience an urge for whatever substance or behavior you have given up, imagine that the urge is a wave in the ocean that will start, crest, and subside. Urges generally start small before growing in size or strength and then go away. To practice urge surfing the next time a craving comes up, follow the steps below:

  • Sit quietly and comfortably
  • Observe your breath without trying to change it
  • Notice your thoughts
  • Bring your attention back to your breath without judging, feeding, or fighting your thoughts
  • Notice where the craving affects your body. Where in your body are you experiencing the craving?
  • Bring your attention to an area of the body where you feel the craving and notice what is happening in your body; see if these bodily sensations change as you inhale or exhale
  • Bring your attention to another part of your body where you are feeling the urge and repeat the process
  • Be curious about the urge of craving and how it changes 

Why You Should Practice Urge Surfing

Urge surfing is another tool to use in maintaining sobriety. The key to urge surfing is that instead of wishing the craving would go away, trying to suppress the craving, or fighting the urge, you are exploring the urge; you are becoming curious about the urge. You are going into the urge and are interested in the experience. As you study the craving and changes in it over time, you might find that the urge subsides.

In the interview with Marlatt that appeared in Inquiring Mind, he described urges and cravings from a Buddhist perspective. He said that you cannot eliminate urges and cravings. They will happen, and you can find a way of recognizing what’s happening inside as you experience the cravings. By “riding the urge out,” you can accept the urge without giving in to your cravings.

As you practice urge surfing more, you will find that urges don’t last as long. If you fight an urge, however, you are giving it more energy or feeding it. Trying to fight a craving has been likened to trying to stop a wave or a waterfall.

Likewise, we are sometimes told not to think about whatever it is we are craving. The more you try not to think about something, like eating chocolate cake, the more you think about eating chocolate cake.

Consider our surfers from the opening of this post. They didn’t fight the wave, and they didn’t try to suppress or ignore the wave. Instead, they went with the wave. They used the immense power of the ocean to get them to the shore.

As people go through your journey of recovery, they will need to deal with urges and cravings. “Urge surfing” is another tool to use to maintain sobriety. At Enlightened Solutions, we offer our clients different tools to use as they move forward in their sober lifestyle. We are a co-occurring treatment center, and, as such, we treat not only addictions but also mental health issues that frequently accompany substance abuse. Our programs are rooted in the 12-Step philosophy, and we focus on healing the whole person and treating the addiction. Our treatment modalities include talk therapy and group support. Also, we offer many holistic healing methods, including yoga and meditation, sound therapy, acupuncture and chiropractic work, and equine therapy. We are located on New Jersey’s southern shore, and we offer each client an individualized treatment program. If you seek relief from an addiction, please call us at (833) 801-5483 to find out what we can offer you.


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