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. Rather than fighting sadness, anger and other negative emotions, it’s about allowing your emotions to wash over you like a tidal wave, riding them out until they pass so that you can make wise decisions from a place of calm rather than a place of emotional turmoil that can often lead to destructive or ineffective behavior that doesn’t serve your goals.
Riding the wave is a concept and skill that 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).
Just as the waves in an ocean change, so can our emotions. Like waves, our 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 a person becomes dysregulated, also termed as emotional hyperactivity, it’s challenging to control and manage intense emotions.
They may be flooded and inundated with negative emotions 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. As the more frequent tendency is to escape and/or attempt to fix an uncomfortable state of being, riding the wave may seem unnatural. Riding the wave gives a person control over uncomfortable feelings. 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 the problem, such as teen depression and mental illness, 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.
Behavioral Tech, LLC (n.d.). What is DBT? | Behavioral Tech. http://behavioraltech.org/resources/whatisdbt.cfm
This month’s blog post was written by Shira Lichenstein, who we’ve been so lucky to have the volunteer support of over the past few months in the offices of Erika’s Lighthouse.