Meditation skill: Surfing the Urge

Surfing the Urge: A distress tolerance skill

I learned this meditation technique from my freediving coach. It’s a technique we employ during a breath-hold to help us deal with an increasingly strong urge to breath.

Understand that the urge to breath is driven by the body’s desire to rid itself of carbon dioxide (CO2)--not (as some assume) your body’s desire to take in oxygen (O2). The urge to breath is a warning, however. It can be safely ignore up to a certain limit. That limit, for our purposes, is the loss of consciousness (cerebral hypoxia); however, the urge to breath becomes quite strong well before your blood oxygen saturation low enough to cause a blackout.

Under normal conditions, the human body has a blood-oxygen saturation of around 98 to 100 percent (the higher number being the most oxygen that the blood could possibly contain). Physical stress or sickness can decrease oxygen saturation to about 95 percent. Few healthy people will ever go below this, but during dives, expert divers have registered oxygen-saturation levels as low as 50 percent, an extraordinarily low number. Oxygen saturations below 85 percent generally cause an increased heart rate and impaired vision; 65 percent and below greatly impairs basic brain functions; 55 percent results in unconsciousness. But well-trained divers have not only remained conscious with oxygen saturations of 50 percent but maintained muscle control and extremely low heart rates, reportedly as low as seven beats per minute.

Hold your breath too long, and you start to feel malaise. The urge to breath appears and it seems as if the malaise will only increase in intensity until you submit to releasing you breath and starting to breath again. But what happens if you don’t give in and keep holding your breath? Ultimately static apnea (breath hold) is a matter of pure, mind-over-matter willpower.

After a while, along with the discomfort, you’re start to experience involuntary contractions in your diagram. These is where the meditation technique comes in. When you feel a contraction, just observe it. As they increase in frequency, simple witness them as if you were a third-party.

At first, you may feel like these urges will rise up, stronger and stronger and become more and more unbearable, but if you simple observe and remain detached, you’ll notice a pattern. The urges come in waves. They build up to a peak, and then they recede. As the intensity of an urge builds, it may feel alarming, but if you stay calm and occupy your mind by following the urge as it ebbs and flows. In the beginning, there are long pauses between each wave, and the wave is often little more than a twitch. Over time they come more frequently and with more intensity. But all the while you simple follow the urge as it rises, neutrally observing, in non-attached and non-judgemental manner, how it differed from the one before it. As the contractions increase in frequency and strength, you can try and soften them with by gently contracting your diaphragm to smooth them out. And knowing that it too shall pass.

When you experience an urge and then act on that impulse, your brain makes the connection that you can only make the urge go away by engaging in the behavior. This connection can create a habit or automatic behavior.

“Surfing the urge” is a mindfulness technique that can be used not only to help freedivers, by also to deal with pain management, anger management, and impulse control issues such as sex and eating addictions. Instead of automatically acting on destructive impulses, it can help people regain some control over their urges resisting until they pass. When you notice an urge, rather than fighting against it, imagine you are on a surfboard riding with it. Notice the shifting sensations, in a non-attached and non-judgmental manner, how they rise and fall, come and go.