Learn / The Many Mental Health Benefits of Surf Therapy
Surfing isn’t only fun—it can also be therapeutic. If you love to surf, or want to learn, you might consider attending a rehab facility that offers surf therapy.
It’s powerful to connect with nature. And as you rebuild your life, it’s important to find safe, healthy ways to have fun. Surf therapy is an immersive way to do both!
Surf therapy is just what it sounds like: surfing and processing your emotions at the same time. This treatment method combines surfing lessons, surfing itself, and other group activities.1 In each session, participants connect with their feelings, each other, and the natural world. By attending therapy in this unique environment, you can approach recovery from a new perspective.
You don’t have to be a pro surfer in order to benefit from surf therapy.2 In fact, you don’t even need to know how to surf. Kelsey Ellis, who started a surf therapy program for women healing from grief, explains that some of her clients are totally new to the sport.. “A lot of our participants, it’s their first time putting on a wetsuit and going in the water,” Ellis says. “And they sign up because they’re afraid of the ocean.”
Every rehab program is unique—especially the ones that offer experiential therapy. But most surf therapy programs follow a similar format.
First, you’ll learn the basics of surfing. Instructors will make sure you’re ready before you get in the water. Most programs teach these classes to small groups, so you can bond with the people around you. Sea Change Recovery, for example, has a strong emphasis on community. Clients are encouraged to look out for each other, and help each other improve.
Sessions will give you time to talk about your feelings, and time to enjoy the water. You might start a session with a discussion, or go around and say affirmations before you paddle out. And at the end of the entire program, your group might perform a closing ritual. This is a way of celebrating your own progress, and expressing gratitude for the people around you.
Surf therapy can improve your overall health in a variety of ways.3 At Maui Recovery, for instance, you can use surf therapy to treat both addiction and mental health.4 Their experts believe that “the physical challenges of surfing parallel the emotional and mental processes that each client has long avoided. For those who are removing themselves from alcohol and drug addiction, surfing is a metaphor for balance, and it allows clients to think outside the box as they learn how to balance their internal processes.” Surf therapy promotes that balance by addressing several aspects of your health.
Data shows that doing sports and other activities near bodies of water5 improves mental health. These “blue spaces” can help you feel calmer, especially if you actually go out on the water. In one study, teens even said that activities like canoeing and surfing helped them build stronger relationships.
Social connection is a core component of surf therapy programs.3 During surfing lessons, participants often lean on each other for emotional support. This mutual encouragement can help you feel a sense of belonging.
In another study, clients said they felt safe during surf therapy sessions because they trusted their instructors. With expert support, they had “the opportunity to try something new without fear, harm, or ridicule.” That sense of safety can interrupt some of the thought patterns that result from trauma. And when you feel safe, you can work through triggers and practice emotion regulation.
“We are like the ocean, and the waves are the emotions that move through us,” surf therapy facilitator Kelsey Ellis2 explains. “All you want to do is push those waves away, but when you’re surfing, you can’t do that. You really have to be fully present when you’re in the water, and notice the waves that are coming towards you.”
In a word, she’s describing mindfulness. This is a key component of many addiction programs. Mindfulness teaches you to pay attention6 “on purpose” and to be more aware of the present moment. You learn to let experiences happen, without judging yourself or your feelings. Practicing mindfulness can even minimize symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Research shows that trying new things improves well-being. This is especially important for people in recovery. Neuroscientist Suzette Glasner-Edwards7 says that “people with the most success in staying sober tend to get involved in a range of pleasurable activities and do them frequently.”
Healthy hobbies can take the place of drug and alcohol use. When you learn new skills, you form new neural connections. By learning and doing things you enjoy, you can literally rewire your brain. Activities like surfing can trigger the same internal reward system as drug use. And 1 of those 2 behaviors is far healthier—and far more sustainable.
Surfing also has a positive impact on physical health.8 This strenuous sport can help you get strong. You’ll be paddling, swimming, and working on your core strength while you balance on the surfboard. Research shows that most surfers have these physical traits:
This is more than a side benefit. Experts agree that physical fitness can help with addiction recovery.9 However, this may be a barrier for some clients. If you have certain physical health issues, you might not be a candidate for surf therapy. But depending on your condition, you may be able to start it a little later on in treatment.
If your physical health permits it, you can probably benefit from this type of treatment. Data shows that surf therapy can improve mental health10 for many populations, including the following:
Surfing can decrease the symptoms of PTSD, improve mindfulness, and boost self-esteem. It can also foster a greater mind-body connection. These common goals might resonate with clients of many different backgrounds.
Recovery isn’t only about doing hard work. It’s also a time to find new and meaningful activities that you enjoy—while sober. If you enjoy surf therapy, it might even turn into a lifelong hobby.
Surfing is also a great way to meet new people. The surfing community has a reputation for being strong, supportive, and tight-knit. These relationships can give you something to look forward to, in every stage of recovery. They can also hold you accountable, and keep you focused on your healing goals.
Learn more about rehab centers that offer surf therapy, including their locations, treatment philosophies, and additional experiential therapies.
McKenzie, R. J., Chambers, T. P., Nicholson-Perry, K., Pilgrim, J., & Ward, P. B. (2021). “Feels good to get wet”: The unique affordances of surf therapy among australian youth. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.721238
Surf sisters - ep. 2 | national geographic presents: Impact with gal gadot. (n.d.). Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3LS8CQJW4A
Gibbs, K., Wilkie, L., Jarman, J., Barker-Smith, A., Kemp, A. H., & Fisher, Z. (2022). Riding the wave into wellbeing: A qualitative evaluation of surf therapy for individuals living with acquired brain injury. PLoS ONE, 17(4), e0266388. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266388
Surf therapy treatment for mental health issues. (n.d.). Maui Recovery. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://mauirecovery.com/how-we-treat/surf-therapy/
Rocher, M., Silva, B., Cruz, G., Bentes, R., Lloret, J., & Inglés, E. (2020). Benefits of outdoor sports in blue spaces. The case of school nautical activities in viana do castelo. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(22), 8470. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17228470
Bossi, F., Zaninotto, F., D’Arcangelo, S., Lattanzi, N., Malizia, A. P., & Ricciardi, E. (2022). Mindfulness-based online intervention increases well-being and decreases stress after Covid-19 lockdown. Scientific Reports, 12, 6483. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-10361-2
To kick addiction, replace it with joy—U magazine—Ucla health—Los angeles, ca. (n.d.). Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://www.uclahealth.org/u-magazine/to-kick-addiction-replace-it-with-joy
Surfing’s unique health benefits – pnwmsrj. (n.d.). Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://pnwmsrj.org/review/2020/10/surfings-unique-health-benefits/
Twark, C. (2018, December 26). Can exercise help conquer addiction? Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-exercise-help-conquer-addiction-201812261564
Benninger, E., Curtis, C., Sarkisian, G. V., Rogers, C. M., Bender, K., & Comer, M. (2020). Surf Therapy: A Scoping Review of the Qualitative and Quantitative Research Evidence. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 11(2), 1 – 26. Retrieved June 29, 2022 from https://www.gjcpp.org/pdfs/BenningerEtAl-Final.pdf
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