As the world mental health crisis rages on, there’s increasing demand for unconventional therapies that can help people with mental health issues get help without need for medication. And since ‘exercise is the best medicine’, it’s not such a big surprise that surf therapy is gaining more recognition. And luckily, you don’t have to be a surfer to take part. In this article, we’ll talk about what surf therapy is, how it works and how it can benefit you and why.
What is Surf Therapy?
Surf therapy is defined as a mental and physical health intervention that’s becoming a more and more popular method of treatment all over the world. The core of this treatment is surfing and spending time in the water. In addition to surfing, the therapy might involve mentoring, group discussions and social skills development, although the content varies from program to program. Surf therapy is a unique opportunity to combine the benefits of being around nature with physical activity and socializing with people who might be going through similar struggles. A lot of studies look at the ocean healing benefits in people who suffer from PTSD specifically (more on this in later sections).
The Origins of Surf Therapy
The first surf therapy programmes are said to have emerged in the 90s but the International Surf Therapy Organization (ISTO) was established in 2017 and that’s when more research that explored its benefits was conducted. ISTO’s mission is to get involved in more research, promote the excellence of surf therapy via sharing knowledge and exchanging program tools and increase awareness through social media and recruiting global ambassadors. It's possible that in a few years’ time, surf therapy might become one of the most popular forms of treatment.
What is PTSD?
According to recent statistics, about 12 million adults in the U.S have PTSD in a given year and 6 out of every 100 people will have PTSD at some point in their lives.  Women are also more likely to suffer from it than men.
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder which is a mental health condition caused by a traumatic experience, such as an assault, death of a loved one, bullying and surviving a car crash. The common symptoms might include flashbacks, nightmares, feeling of guilt, disturbed sleep, depression and hyperarousal. While most people might experience a few or all of those symptoms, the way they manifest themselves varies from person to person and no method of treatment is one size fits all so it’s worth looking into less conventional therapies too. Surf therapy can be beneficial for anyone who struggles with mental health.
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The Ocean Healing Benefits
If you decide to try surf therapy, here are the benefits you can expect:
- Improved mood – Multiple studies suggest that surfing therapy might enhance your emotional well-being – being surrounded by water and having a clear goal can calm your mind and let you take a break from negative thoughts.
- Having a sense of purpose – PTSD sufferers typically experience depression at the same time, which comes with a lack of motivation and purpose. Since purpose is linked to better mental resilience, having a purpose (learning how to surf) can facilitate recovery from trauma. 
- It’s a non-pharmacological treatment – While psychiatric medications can work, they often come with a range of side effects and potential adverse reactions.
- It’s a holistic approach – This means that a participant isn’t just seen as mental health sufferer but as their whole person, and that their spiritual, physical and social health are also taken into consideration.
- Making friends – Most programs include group sessions where you can meet like-minded people and potentially make friends for life.
Why is Surf Therapy Beneficial?
So what makes surf therapy so good for you and perhaps even better than other forms of therapy and exercise?
According to the ‘Blue Mind tTheory’, being close to the water, whether it’s swimming or visiting an aquarium, can put us in a meditative state which helps us calm down and might have long-term health benefits. This concept was explored in-depth in the Blue Mind book written by a marine biologist, Wallace Nichols, and it includes science that shows how being near, in or under the water can increase your happiness and make you more successful in life in general. The author draws on personal experience, other people’s stories, data from scientific studies and art and talks about the ocean's healing benefits.
If you’ve ever looked at the ocean and felt instant peace, you can probably relate to the message the book is trying to send: water is a form of therapy. Here’s what exactly makes it so beneficial for your mental health:
- People with PTSD live in a constant state of hyper-vigilance; unexpected sounds might startle them and they might avoid potentially dangerous situations such as taking part in social events. Surf therapy might be good for them as it’s challenging and allows them to get out of their comfort zone as a result. And since learning how to do this sport requires maximum focus, it allows the PTSD sufferers to redirect their attention and concentrate on one activity instead of subconsciously scanning their environment for the signs of threat. For similar reasons, it’s an effective treatment for people who struggle with anxiety. Since the source of their anxiety might be difficult to pinpoint, surfing is an adrenaline-inducing activity that allows you to experience a well-defined fear, which can make you feel more in control. When you’re surfing, you’re forced to maintain focus and you free yourself from negative thoughts, worries and anything that’s going on in your life. It can be a very freeing and reassuring experience.
- Secondly, traditional methods of treatment often involve reliving the upsetting experience, which many PTSD sufferers aren’t ready for. While EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy that directly alters the way the traumatic memory is stored in the brain can be effective, it requires the patient to focus on the trauma. Surfing is an alternative to traditional treatment. As a physical activity, it grounds you in the present and boosts your mood, which is reflected by findings from several studies. For example, a study that looked at how physical activity affects people who suffer from PTSD found that it can decrease depressive symptoms. 
- Surf therapy also allows you to spend a lot of time surrounded by the ocean and as studies show, being around nature can improve your cognitive function, boost your mood and reduce stress.  Additionally, the ocean is a powerful force that sometimes helps you realize how insignificant some of your problems might be – this isn’t to say that your mental illness will be cured but that it helps you achieve peace of mind, even if it only lasts a moment. The ocean provides physical, mental, and spiritual healing benefits.
- Surfing is challenging. It takes a lot of work and physical exertion is one of the best ways to improve your sleep. For someone who suffers from PTSD, a good night’s sleep is a rarity. Additionally, it is challenging and overcoming challenges can make us stronger and help us build resilience that can be applied to daily life. If you can cope with falling off the board and getting back up to face another wave, you can cope with whatever else life throws at you.
- Additionally, if you’re taking part in surf therapy via a program, you’ll be learning as a part of the group. For people who suffer from mental health issues, it’s good to connect with others who share similar struggles, so one of the ocean healing benefits is increasing a sense of community and becoming less isolated. You might also learn how to improve your social skills or what personal growth is which can alleviate symptoms of depression – the most effective method of treatment doesn’t treat the mental illness as a whole but focuses on reducing each symptom.
- One of the ocean healing benefits is that it allows you to achieve a state of flow. When you’re in the zone, you’re entirely focused on the task at hand – if you have any hobbies that involve physical activity or creativity, you probably know how good it feels to fully give in to the moment and forget about the rest of the world. This kind of flow can help you develop resilience and the dopamine it generates is a healthier substitute for self-medication. PTSD sufferers might use unhealthy coping skills such as drinking or doing drugs to take the edge off while this is a safe, holistic alternative
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Is Surf Therapy Effective?
Although this kind of treatment method is still new, research on the topic suggests that it might be a highly effective tool. For example, findings from the study that looked at the effects of high-intensity sports on PTSD and depression showed that surfing helped veterans settle back into their civilian lives and improved their symptoms.  If you’ve tried different kinds of treatment before and didn’t see any improvement, there’s hope.
However, it’s important to remember that although surf therapy seems to be highly beneficial, it’s always a good idea to seek a professional treatment for PTSD, especially since the data on the topic is still scarce. For example, many studies have looked at surf therapy but include participants who were also receiving other forms of therapy at the same time which made it difficult to measure the effectiveness of surf therapy itself.  When it comes to treating mental health issues or PTSD, it's always wise to explore as many safe options as possible.
How Does Surf Therapy Work?
Even though you can practice surfing on your own and still benefit from improved mood, the kind of surf therapy institutions offer involves regular lessons with a teacher who measures their progress in terms of well-being. Such projects are currently offered all over the world, including the UK, Philippines, Australia, Netherlands and Spain.
Who is Surf Therapy For?
People who decide to take part in surf therapy typically involve veterans, those who experienced abuse, cancer survivors, emergency workers or depression sufferers. However, anyone can sign up for it, whether they’re currently struggling in life, have no sense of direction or simply want to try something new. A lot of program are also dedicated to youth who might lack social or motor skills. For example, people with cerebral palsy.
Surf therapy is a low-cost, unconventional treatment that can be a holistic, medication-free alternative to traditional medical treatment for mental health issues. Data from current studies suggest that surf therapy comes with many benefits: improved mental well-being, PTSD symptom reduction and a greater sense of resilience. It also can be a lot of FUN! While most programs are dedicated to young people, everyone is invited to try it out and experience the ocean healing benefits for themselves.
If you’d like to learn more about this form of therapy, visit the ISTO website (https://intlsurftherapy.org/) where you can find a list of programs all over the world. Lastly, remember that for every order, we donate $2 to the International Surf Therapy Organization.
Learn more about contributor, Joanna Cakala