When frustration or anger hijacks us, we may say or do things we regret. Here’s an uncomplicated mindfulness technique for managing the urge to lash out — and for managing other troublesome impulses too.
Anger has a way of stealing our good communication skills and self-control. It’s hard to reason ourselves or reason someone else back into reasonableness. Psychiatrist, trauma specialist, and bestselling author Bessel van der Kolk explains why:
“You get really upset with your partner or your kid, suddenly you take leave of your senses, and you say horrible things to that person. And afterwards, you say, oh, I didn’t mean to say that. The reason why you said it is because Broca’s area, which is sort of the part of your brain that helps you to say reasonable things and to understand things and articulate them, shuts down. So when people really become very upset, that whole capacity to put things into words in an articulate way disappears.” [source]
Anger is both a high-arousal and a self-immersive state. High-arousal states lead us to say and do things we might not otherwise. And self-immersion causes us to dwell on our hurt and angry feelings, which tends not only to “feed” and amplify our grievances but also to increase aggression and impair decision-making.
The high arousal of anger dissolves with time; research suggests it generally takes about 30 minutes. So, techniques that interrupt anger or are incompatible with anger help us “buy time” to allow our anger to subside. Techniques that interrupt rumination help us out of a self-immersive state and prevent us from “practicing” the same state we’re trying to dissolve.
Urge surfing is a mindfulness technique that accomplishes both missions — it helps us manage the high arousal of anger and gives us a beneficial alternative to self-immersion.
Used for resisting unwanted impulses from cigarette smoking to over-eating to anger, urge surfing uses a visualization not to “get rid of” an urge, but to ride it out, just as we would ride a wave. Unlike trying to suppress an urge, which can increase the urge’s power, urge surfing accepts the urge non-judgmentally and allows us to engage it without getting pulled under it.
How to urge surf
Urge surfing is primarily useful when you can separate yourself from the anger-inducing person or situation for a few minutes (or more). For example, it’s useful if you’re angered by an email or voicemail message or if you’ve had an argument and have separated from the other(s) for a few minutes to gather your thoughts or calm down.
Like other mindfulness techniques, urge surfing is not a magic trick. We reap its full power when we commit to practicing it. We teach our minds to experience the urge without acting on it with attention and practice. Here’s how to start:
- When you notice the urge to lash out in anger, mentally replace resisting or giving in to the urge with interest in the urge.
- Picture the urge as though it is an ocean wave and you are surfing the crest of the wave. Feel the rise and fall of the water, and you moving with the motion. Ocean waves begin small, grow large, and then disperse at the shoreline. Picture the wave as it changes scale and shape and moves beneath your surfboard.
- Notice how your body feels as you surf: What sensations are you experiencing? Where are they located in your body? What is happening with your breath?
- If you find your mind wandering, bring yourself non-judgmentally back to the physical sensation of your body riding the wave.
When you’re new to urge surfing, initially practice surfing for five to six slow breaths or about a minute. Gradually increase the length of time to two minutes, then five, and so on.
You can also try urge surfing in a series of intervals so you don’t feel overwhelmed by trying to do it for longer than a minute. Surf for one minute (5-6 breaths), then repeat for another minute, then for more 1-minute intervals as the situation and your ability allow. Experiment and see what works for you.
Disclosure: One link in this post is an Amazon affiliate link, which means I receive a few dimes from Amazon if you buy the book (at no extra cost to you). And, of course, I just turn around and spend those dimes on…more books. Which then inform my writing for you. It’s a beautiful cycle.