Urge Surfing – A Simple Technique For Overcoming Overeating/Sticking to a Diet

By Dr Alice Boyes |

Urge Surfing Update – There is an updated version of urge surfing advice. Jump straight to a free mp3 that will guide you through urge surfing. It’s designed for urge surfing cravings, but you can use it for any type of urge surfing e.g., urge surfing the desire to self harm or seek reassurance..

Or, read my other urge surfing article - read urge surfing article.

Older Urge Surfing Article

The article below is still useful from the perspective of needing to take yourself out of physical proximity from whatever temptation you’re trying to urge surf.

Let’s say you’re trying to lose weight.

Its after dinner. You’re not exactly hungry but you really want some ice cream. You know you have some ice cream in the fridge and the urge to eat it is very strong.

My advice of what to do in these circumstances is to “urge surf”.

Ask yourself how strong your urge to eat the icecream is on a scale of 0 to 10 where

0 = no urge
10 = the urge is so strong it seems impossible to resist.

Let’s say you rate your urge as a 10.

Next…

…wait 10 minutes.

Ideas for the kinds of things you might do while waiting: Go take a shower, get your clothes ready for tomorrow’s workday, read a book, or go remove any junk from your car.

Once the 10 minutes is up, check in with your urge again. How strong is it now?

Scenario A:

If, after the 10 minutes, the urge is still a 10, you will have learned that even though the level 10 urge seemed impossible to resist, it wasn’t.
In this scenario, try waiting another 10 mins and repeating the procedure.

Scenario B (MOST COMMON):

If, after the 10 minutes, the urge is now a 9 1/2 or less, you now know that the urge is becoming less strong without you needing to do anything other than wait (aka “urge surf” meaning to surf the wave of the urge).

Psychological Concepts and More Advice

1. Inherent in the idea of urge surfing is that action urges naturally ebb and flow. They don’t get “stuck on” unbearably high and stay unbearably high.

2. The point of the urge surfing concept is that many times all you need to do for an urge to diminish is to wait. However, particularly if your urge stays a 10 or you end up giving in and eating, you might want to spend some time trying to understand what triggered the urge.

Is the trigger physical? e.g. you’re tired, you have some type of physical pain, PMS?

Is the trigger emotional? e.g. Are you feeling lonely, sad, angry, disappointed, excited, anxious, bored, or guilty/ashamed? Are you avoiding or dreading something? Did something go wrong in your day? Have you experienced some type of interpersonal conflict, rejection, or frustration? More information on why its important to know which specific emotions you’re feeling and how to do this.

Is the trigger habitual? e.g. you’re watching a movie and you often eat while watching movies, so the act of watching the movie is triggering the urge to eat. Or, your husband is out and you often eat when you husband is out, so that situation is triggering the urge?

Is the trigger a combination of more than one of the above? (MOST COMMON) e.g. two emotional triggers, or an emotional and a habitual trigger.More information on understanding your triggers can be found here, but you might want to read the rest of the current page first.

It can sometimes help you figure out your trigger if you think about how you want to feel during/after eating e.g.
– If you want to feel more energized, this might indicate the trigger is tiredness or physical pain.
– If you want to feel soothed/calm/relaxed, this might indicate the trigger is some kind of anxiety or anger.
– If you want to feel distracted, this might indicate the trigger is frustration, disappointment, loneliness, anger, anxiety, or you’re avoiding something.
– If you want to feel entertained, this might indicate the trigger is boredom or loneliness.
– If you want to feel nourished, this might indicate you’re in need of caring (you might need to do self care).

Sometimes understanding why the urge has popped up is enough to successfully urge surf.

Sometimes understanding why the urge has popped up gives you the information you need to pick an alternative coping response that’s a better match to the problem you’re trying to solve e.g. you’re tired so you have an early night or give yourself the night off from doing.

For your common triggers, you should have a list that says…
… when I feel X, doing A, B, C, or D is likely to help.
… when I feel Y, doing E, F, G, or H is likely to help.

3. Another urge surfing technique is to project ahead in time and think about how you’ll feel later (e.g. in 1/2 an hour, in 2 hours, tomorrow) if you give into the urge vs. how you’ll feel later if you do something else.

4. Sometimes after the initial 10 mins you might still decide to give into the urge (especially if it remains a 10). But, by using this procedure you’re likely to significantly cut down the proportion of times you give into the urge. Lets conservatively say waiting for 1 x 10 min reduces your instances of overeating in response to urges by 30%. Over time, this will mean you’re consuming significantly fewer extra calories. Successful weight management usually involves combining different techniques that each help a bit.

5. Even if you do give into the urge, allowing 10 minutes for the urge to diminish might allow the intensity of the urge to decrease enough that you can think about “harm minimization” e.g. if I’m going to eat ice cream, how can I make sure I only eat a regular serving size?

Don’t spend the initial 10 minutes thinking about your harm minimization options. If you decide to give into the urge, think about it then, after the initial 10 mins is up.

Note: Urge surfing is a commonly used term in psychology but I’m not sure who came up with it. Its used to mean somewhat different things in different contexts.

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About The Author

is the author of an upcoming book about anxiety for PenguinRandomHouse. She writes for Psychology Today, GOOD magazine, and is the Emotions Expert for Women's Health Australia. She lives in NYC and is originally from New Zealand.

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