Surf Therapy, RX

Imagine this. You walk into your doctor’s office with a list of ailments, and she pulls out her prescription pad and writes down Surf Therapy, Rx. Those living in coastal states like California, where surfing has been named the official state sport might actually be able to envision their long-haired doctor suggesting this. After all, the sea has been prescribed by doctors to heal an array of physical and emotional maladies for hundreds of years in what was once called “Taking in the waters” or “Thalassotherapy.” So maybe there’s something to the fact that surfers get branded as laid back. 

In fact, the International Surf Therapy Organization is attempting just this—prescribing surf therapy as an alternative treatment. Through research and advocacy, the organization teams up with other organizations globally who are already providing surfing as a form of remedy for a wide range of physical and mental health concerns. 

Aside from being a psychodynamic psychotherapist, I am fortunate enough to be a part of an organization that provides surf therapy. This organization—Salt Water Therapy—takes individuals from substance abuse and mental health treatment facilities out into the water to have such an experience. By incorporating mindfulness and an introduction to surfing, participants build self-efficacy, a sense of community, and a tolerance for life’s ever-changing tides. Many schools of thought believe that trauma, stress, and even general emotions are stored and expressed in the body. Surfing is an experience that can connect you to your body in a way that allows for presence, at-oneness, a complete and often unconscious surrender to the moment-to-moment interaction with yourself and your surroundings, specifically, the ocean. I have found this to be true for me; when I am riding a wave, there is virtually nothing else I can think about other than that experience, that moment. Although it can certainly be viewed as a form of mindfulness, I can attest it is so much more than that. The healing that comes from that connection, along with the pure child-like joy of catching a wave, are incredibly powerful. 

Whoa dude, Science 

We all experience stress. In fact, optimal levels of stress help us with learning, motivation, and effective decision making. But what happens when we are in a constant state of stress? The brain processes stress in the same way it would a threat. An area called the amygdalasends this signal to two other areas of the brain — the hypothalamusand brain stem, which in turn stimulate our sympathetic nervous system in order to physically handle the threat. Once the threat has been resolved, the parasympathetic nervous systems brings the body back to homeostasis. Visualize prolonged stress or trauma as having your foot on a gas pedal.  When an individual is under a constant state of stress the fight, flight or freeze response is in overdrive, the gas pedal is down (the sympathetic system is working) while the breaks (the parasympathetic nervous system) no longer work at a functional capacity. Our amygdala then becomes hyper-aroused (constantly over-responding to stimuli), which negates the use of higher processing centers in the brain that are in charge of healthy decision making and smooth problem solving. 

As an antidote, surfing stimulates breathing which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the “calm-down” system) both in and out of the water. The rhythmic pattern of waves and being submersed in a body of water facilitates this very same process within the body. Surfing also releases the famous dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins that reduce stress levels and elevate our mood. In sum, in the same way that repeated exposure to stress can wire neurons in our brain to fire the fight, flight, freeze response, surfing multiple times a week could potentially allow the brain to form new neural pathways that calm our system down.

Stay Stoked! 

So yes, surfing can be good for your mental and physical health, but that doesn’t mean you are going to channel your inner Kelly Slater after your first session. Remember, the ocean is an incredibly powerful force that can leave even experienced surfers a little shaken up. If you are a beginner, perhaps try a surf school or have an experienced surfer help you out. Familiarize yourself with surf etiquette and try surfing in a space where you are keeping both yourself and others safe. 

If you tried it and feel that surfing isn’t for you, there are numerous benefits from being in or near the ocean or any body of water. To that end, take yourself on a powerwalk near a lake or river, or sit and observe the tide near an ocean. Just being close to a source of water can be rejuvenating, calming and inspiring.

Above all, have fun and share the stoke! Don’t forget to celebrate World Oceans Day on June 8thand International Surf Day on June 20th!

I’m Michelle Scott, MSW , one of the therapists you could see at Wright Institute Los Angeles where we offer Affordable Therapy for Everyday People!

Michelle received her Master’s degree in Social Work at the University of Southern California. Michelle has worked with a range of individuals at acute hospital settings as a medical social worker and has experience working with adults and teenagers with addiction and eating disorders at residential treatment facilities. Michelle’s therapeutic approach is informed by attachment and psychodynamic theories as well as neurobiology. Michelle draws from these theories to provide a safe space with the understanding that at our core, we have a deep need for connection and to be seen.