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Urge surfing: When handling an urge to drink is like facing a tsunami

Relapse statistics vary, but, in general, a majority of people who recover from alcoholism relapse at some point. Relapse, it seems, is a part of the recovery experience.

One technique for handling an urge to drink is called urge surfing. But, it is not restricted to urges to drink. It is also applied to urges to eat, spend money, lash out at others in anger, or an urge to act on any other behavioral addiction.

Urge surfing is the practice of accepting an urge with the knowledge that, if you do not feed it or act on it, it will eventually dissipate like a breaking wave. The idea is that we can ride out an urge to drink, allowing it to eventually pass over us.

I have heard counselors talk about urge surfing in an almost lighthearted way. “Oh, you can just ride it out. It will pass soon. Then you will feel better.” Really?

Urge surfing is more like surfing in a hurricane.

If urge surfing is like riding a wave, then it is a wave in a hurricane. Urge waves are not fun and exciting like the waves on Malibu beach. They are dark and angry waves. They are strong, powerful, dominating. They will knock the breath out of you. They will crush you. They will push you down into the rip tide and drag you out to sea.

When you surf at a beach you usually finish feeling refreshed and happy. But after you surf an urge to drink you feel battered, exhausted, drained of energy, and unbalanced, even as post-fight emotions linger within you and haunt you.

An urge to drink can turn into a tsunami.

Urge surfing makes sense. We have to learn to accept the emotions, good or bad, that rise within us. But we have to be careful. Letting our emotions build too much, gain too much strength, or take over is dangerous. We know that some emotions rise and fall, strengthen and fade. But an urge to drink can turn into a tsunami. You can try to surf it, but it may not end well.

But we are not slaves to our emotions and our urges. We can acknowledge them without encouraging and empowering them. But we cannot be completely passive. Yes, we can pause, accept, and reflect. But we have to act. It helps if we do this early, when urges are small and building. When our urges rise, we must both acknowledge them and do something to redirect them. Even if it means going for a walk, watching a movie, washing the dishes, or petting your dog. We can acknowledge our emotions and then turn our attention in a fresh direction. We must do something. Reach out. Call a friend. Read about recovery. Attend a 12-Step meeting in person or online. We must shift the power of the urge by redirecting it.

The key is to act, to do something.

When we act in a new way, we break the connection between the urge and the act of drinking. We redirect our energy and emotions in a different direction. We give ourselves the opportunity to be free. Does that mean the urge goes away? Sometimes. Some urges are momentary, almost fleeting. But not always. However, we can create a new future for ourselves at that very moment, a future that turns away from drinking and not towards it. The key is to do something, anything that breaks the hold that urges have on us before they become too strong.

For more insights see my books and blog at

Or, my YouTube channel, The Coping Expert, at

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

(Image credit Dark waves is from Unsplash)

(Image credit Man and wave is from Unsplash)

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