Surf Therapy for Addiction Treatment and Mental Health

It’s not uncommon to think of surfing as a type of therapy. Think about how a good day on the water leaves you feeling refreshed no matter what kind of mood you were in to begin with. You’re up with the sun, rolling on the waves, far from the hubbub of the beach. Your thoughts slow down, and you harness a type of meditative focus that brings you into the present moment. No wonder surfers are so chill.

The ocean is therapeutic. Any surfer can tell you that. Scientists are pretty stoked about surf therapy too. Research shows that surfing improves symptoms of mental health conditions, including substance abuse disorders.

Wave explodes from beneath.

What Science Says About Surf Therapy

Surfing isn’t new. The sport was part of ancient Hawaiian culture, and it’s considered an art form as well as an athletic pursuit. But in the past decade or so, researchers have been looking at surfing for its benefits for people with mental health and substance abuse disorders.

In 2010, a small study conducted by the National Health Service in Britain explored how surfing instruction influenced teenaged and young adult participants with psychological issues. The researchers saw significant improvements in the volunteers’ moods. The surfers were able to find enjoyment in their lives, something that people with mental health and substance abuse disorders often struggle with.

A subsequent survey issued by doctoral students at the University of Iowa found similar results from surfing. The sport has a way of calming people as well as energizing them, relieving stress, boosting energy levels and reducing negative thoughts.

Other studies support these findings. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology reported that surfers experienced fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than non-surfers. They also used fewer emotionally reactive strategies for coping with stress, choosing to avoid it instead. Surfing has even been researched for its ability to improve the well-being of veterans with PTSD.

Is it the Exercise or Being in the Zone that Counts?

Most people are aware that exercise is good for mental health. People who struggle with addiction may swap out a chemical high for a runner’s high. Is surfing just another way to raise levels of feel-good neurotransmitters?

Surfing is definitely a workout. Paddling strengthens your arms, back and chest. Balancing stabilizes your core.

Catching a wave can leave you breathless, but that’s not just because you burn about 250 calories per hour. There’s an exhilaration that comes from feeling that connected with the power of something greater than yourself. In this case, being out in nature provides a boost for your mind, body and spirit that’s different than the one you get after pounding the treadmill for an hour.

When you’re doing other types of exercise, you tend to zone out. But surfing has the unique ability to let you zone in, much like you would during meditation. You have to maintain a certain level of self-awareness while surfing. You must also be in tune with the natural elements around you. As you become one with the wave, you create a meditative state of mind.

For years, researchers have been studying the effects of meditation on mental health and addiction. The practice has undeniable benefits, including stress reduction, the ability to identify emotions, and relief from intrusive thoughts. Meditation produces brain changes that can help people with addiction or co-occurring disorders find lasting success in recovery.

What Are Some of the Benefits of Surf Therapy?

Surfing physically removes you from an environment that could trigger negative emotions and addiction. It forces you to spend quality time with yourself and nature. No matter what’s going on at home, work or your regular environment, you don’t have to think about it on the water.

But the sport is not just a bandage that temporarily conceals your troubles. It shifts your mindset in a way that helps you cope when you’re back on land.

According to New Method Wellness, an addiction treatment center that offers ocean therapy in Orange County, California, the sport requires you to be mindful of the present moment. You can’t dwell on the past or worry about the future when you’re on the surfboard. The only thing that matters is connecting with your body and focusing your mind as you embrace the momentum of each wave.

There is a level of trust that’s involved in surfing. You have to trust your body and skills. But you must also relinquish some control. You can’t regulate the waves; you can only move with them. This is a powerful metaphor for the entire addiction treatment journey. Once you have the tools to propel you down a healthy path, you confirm the belief that you have the resources to support your own well-being.

Surfing helps deliver the promise of change. Many people who are stuck in a cycle of addiction worry that they will get caught up in a downward spiral forever. For someone who has never surfed before, standing up on a surfboard is an exhilarating milestone that shows them that transformation is possible.

The physical benefits that surfing delivers can also help individuals who are on the road to recovery. Surfing relieves insomnia. Being in the sun during the day resets your circadian rhythm. Riding the waves can wipe you out, delivering nourishing sleep at night. The sport also improves strength and endurance.

You can take it at your own pace, though. If all you can do on a particular day is straddle your board as you rock in the waves, you’ll still raise your heart rate by paddling past the breakers and strengthen your core by focusing on your balance.

Ultimately, the road to recovery from addiction or mental health disorders is all about balance. The concept of equilibrium stops being so abstract when you’re physically working on your stability in an ever-changing ocean. Through surfing and ocean therapy, individuals get hands-on experience to reinforce the notion that they have the strength to keep on going no matter what life throws in their path.