In large, mental illness is stigmatized, misunderstood, and goes mostly untreated, but surf-scientists have found that hanging ten could be a healthy way to manage symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Also read our review of the documentary Resurface, a moving story about a suicidal veteran who found surfing just in time to save his life.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is no joke and there is no magic way to fix it either. A large part of the general public might just say something like, “It’s all in your head” or “Get over it and move on, you’re okay.” But the truth is, trauma isn’t just all in your head and you don’t get over PTSD like it’s the flu or something.
The root mechanisms that cause most mental health disorders, such as PTSD, in a sense remain largely a mystery. And for those living with the condition, managing the symptoms can be a challenge that means life or death.
Treating PTSD has been incredibly difficult, especially for soldiers and veterans of war. Treatments currently consist mainly of cognitive behavioral therapy mixed with prescriptions of toxic and addictive psychiatric drugs, which are often accompanied with a cocktail of pain killing, mind numbing opioids.
However, researchers who’ve been studying the effects of surfing in veterans with PTSD have discovered that the sport can reduce symptoms of the disease and greatly improve their overall quality of life.
$1 million Naval Surf Study
So what’s the secret in surfing that could help veterans with PTSD? Well, the U.S. Navy has invested $1 million into a 3-year research project designed to answer that question exactly.
The project only began last year, but analyses of initial groups of surfing veterans diagnosed with major depressive disorder and signs of PTSD indicate that surfing one day a week for six weeks led to a decrease in insomnia, feelings of anxiety, and a decline in an overall negative view of life.
The study will follow up with participants, also checking their sleeping patterns and to see whether improvements in mental health have been long lasting.
The researchers will also be comparing the effects of surfing with hiking on veterans, because there’s seems to be something magical about ocean sports compared to land sports and science needs to know what it is.
The naval surf study employs the help of a program called, Ocean Therapy, which began in 2003 with Carly Rogers, a LA County lifeguard and USC graduate student. In the program, along with holding structured group discussion on the sand, soldiers learn to surf.
In 2007, Rogers tested the program with a dozen soldiers at Camp Pendleton. Since then more than 1,000 Marines have been treated with Ocean Therapy, and hundreds more vets and surfers have volunteered with the program, including legendary 11-time world surf champ Kelly Slater.
Across the pond, at Loughborough University in the U.K. a psychologist named Nick Caddick studied the effects of surfing on British soldiers for a year and a half. One of the veteran participants with PTSD in the study had been planning to commit suicide, but reportedly kept putting it off for at least another week every time he went surfing. Caddick writes,
“Regular surfing was necessary for disrupting the cycle of PTSD symptoms that would otherwise remain a continuous or uninterrupted source of suffering.”
While the benefits of surfing, specifically for those with PTSD or depression, are quite obvious science is still trying to wrap its analytical mind around the whole why part of this equation.
The Flow Theory
So. Why is surfing therapeutic and beneficial to mental health?
Well, the truth is we don’t know and our answers are essentially theoretical and speculative, but I’d say that’s a pretty good start. The Ocean Therapy program was developed with psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory in mind. And don’t worry if you can’t pronounce his last name, no one can.
It’s thought that the physical exertion and intense focus required to surf can produce what’s referred to as flow states, which may possibly be the same idea referenced by Buddhists referred to as, satori.
In this state of focus, the brain is flooded with neurochemicals like anandamide and serotonin, the same types of compounds and pharmacological targets used in antidepressants.
It’s also thought that when people are submerged in water, their bodies alter the balance of epinephrine and dopamine to the levels achieved during meditation. It’s all about the chemicals!
Riding Waves Could Release Trauma Stored In The body
Trauma is a complex thing, to say the least. In the book, “In an Unspoken Voice”, Dr. Peter Levine explains how PTSD may develop and offers paradigm-shifting suggestions for treating it. Dr. Levine describes how trauma is stored in the physical body, and emotions and memories of traumatic events become interwoven with the physical traumas incurred.
In short, Levine suggests that once guided into a grounded and safe place physically and mentally, patients can release stored trauma and overcome the paralyzing and dissociative issues related with PTSD through guided, customized physical movements and exertions first, before ever trying to think their way through the trauma.
Ride The Waves, Release Trauma, & Reconnect To Wellness
It’s said that in combat you wait and wait, and then you engage in a firefight or some other violent warfare. In surf, you wait and wait, and then with every part of your mind and body you act, hoping to not only survive, but also maybe even to catch a wave.
In the water, in those moments awaiting waves, the mind can easily wander through countless emotions and memories, which most often isn’t easy for those with PTSD. And while I’m no neuroscientist or psychotherapist, it’s easy for me to see how surfing can alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety.
The paddling, the challenge, the fear, the poetically metaphorical ocean, the instincts of survival, the unknown, and triumph over challenge, its all there in surfing and it all stimulates incredible alterations in the balance of various chemicals responsible for modulating how we feel in the brain and body.
Surfing Is A Challenge That Offers Healing
Although, in my perspective, there’s a huge spiritual element involved with surfing, when it comes to mental health it’s all about being chemically balanced. The disorder of PTSD involves an imbalance in brain chemistry and neurological systems. This might be caused by the dissociation and damage done by unresolved and unreleased traumatic experiences.
Surfing provides a physical sport that can be done in groups or solo, which can help restore balance to the brain’s chemistry and release the right hormones and neurochemicals needed to ease anxiety, relieve depression, and stabilize mood and emotions.
Furthermore, the physicality involved with surfing may provide those with PTSD the opportunity to release trauma stored in the body. Rowing and paddling the arms, kicking the feet, utilizing core muscles for stability, harnessing a focused vision and motor coordination all require a great deal of exertion, which is the opportunity for releasing stored trauma.
This may especially be the case for veterans with PTSD who surf. Group-talk sessions on the sand before catching waves brings emotions, feelings, and memories to the surface with out necessarily focusing on traumatic experiences. If it doesn’t than the unsteady nervousness of learning to surf and paddling into crashing waves certainly may
Once in the water, it’s possible that catching a big wave, or even just floating on the board successfully, could be all the therapy a soldier needs to help release stored trauma, reconnect with life inside and out, and restore wellness mentally and physically.
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What do you think? Does surfing help you mentally? Do you or someone you know suffer from PTSD? How has surfing helped manage the condition?
We’d love to hear your story. Share your experiences with surfing in our comments section below and thanks for reading.