A surfer doesn’t fight the powerful ocean wave; he moves with the wave riding its natural tide. “Riding the wave” is also a psychological practice of surfing your own powerful and negative emotions. Fighting emotions such as sadness and anger delays the acceptance of these emotions. Riding the wave is about allowing your emotions to be with you without acting ineffectively. Like a tidal wave coming and going, you will get back to a place of calm rather than emotional turmoil.

Riding the wave is part of a larger behavioral psychotherapy model called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Originally designed to treat patients who were suicidal, exhibiting self-harming behaviors, as well as borderline personality disorder (BPD), DBT is now being used to treat depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. The overall goal of DBT is helping clients create “a life worth living” (Behavioral Tech, LLC 2014). Anyone can benefit from utilizing DBT skills.

Just as the waves in an ocean change, so do your emotions. Like waves, your emotions might be calm and peaceful one moment and at another rocky and unpredictable.  In times of distress, one can experience emotional hyperactivity, also known as dysregulation, and cope with intense emotions in a harmful or ineffective way that can make the situation worse and cause someone to neglect long term priorities, goals and values. When you become dysregulated, it’s challenging to control and manage intense emotions.

You may be flooded and inundated with feelings and harmful urges. There may be a feeling of hopelessness as the emotions are too overwhelming to deal with.  This is when riding the wave comes in handy. Urge surfing or riding the wave involves observing and coping with the experience without trying to change it. The more frequent tendency is to escape and/or attempt to fix an uncomfortable state of being, so riding the wave, sitting with the discomfort may seem unnatural. A surfer goes with the flow and rides a wave to its natural conclusion.

Often, intense feelings and urges seem like they will never end, leading us to amplify the experience and act on impulse. But, we want to ride the urges until they ebb and wash out. Riding the wave allows one to sit with his or her discomfort, sorrow, and pain, instead of fighting the feeling by acting impulsively and engaging in harmful and self destructive behavior.  Although it can seem counterintuitive, accepting painful emotions allows for freedom from suffering.

Although this skill may not make depression or anxiety go away, it’s a tool to help one thoughtfully problem solve. When a person learns to acknowledge pain rather than escape it, they can be in a mindset to see clearly and reach out and get help.

It’s challenging to accept our thoughts and  manage our emotions, but if we can learn how to ride the wave, we can prevent our urges from dictating our behavior. We can be more secure knowing that we have control over our behavior and learn how to make wise decisions to enhance productivity in our everyday life experiences.

John Kabat-Zinn says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.” Just as a surfer might experience fear as the waves approach, fear may also come over you, but rather than being engulfed by the waves, you can help yourself if you climb onto your board, paddle into position, and stand firmly and catch a ride as the wave approaches. The wave no longer takes you down and you can ride the wave back to safety of the shore.

Shira Lichtenstein joined Erika’s Lighthouse in 2015 as a member of the Lighthouse Council. After Shira’s involvement on the Lighthouse Council, she joined our staff in 2018 to oversee social media communication and uses different platforms to help spread our message and promote our depression awareness programs. She also provides support for all of our primary events throughout the year. Shira is currently pursuing a Master’s in social work at The University of Chicago and is passionate about mental health issues. She strongly believes that given the right tools and resources, anyone can improve their mental health.


Behavioral Tech, LLC (n.d.). What is DBT? | Behavioral Tech.http://behavioraltech.org/resources/whatisdbt.cfm