Surf Therapy 101
Increasingly psychologists and therapists are looking towards ‘Nature Based Solutions’ (NBS) to help treat conditions like depression, anxiety, addiction and PTSD. Often these initiatives are focused on enhancing health from a preventative perspective. Although it is still an emerging field of study, current research suggests that surf therapy in particular has marked benefits for both physical and mental health. Unlike traditional treatments aiming to alleviate symptoms of mental health issues through a combination of talk therapy and medication, surf therapy is focused on physical activity. As Benninger points out in a 2020 study: ‘[T]hese programs often include individual mentoring, social skills development, psychoeducation and/or group discussions to promote healing, strengths, resilience and personal growth in an inclusive social environment.’ The NHS has been involved in promoting and funding surf courses for about a decade.
So Why Surf Therapy?
There is still more research that needs to be done in explaining exactly how surf therapy and other aquatic-based therapies achieve their effects. But so far most studies agree that surf therapy results in significant, and tangible benefits to both physical and mental wellbeing. There are several suggested reasons for this.
‘Most of the earth’s surface is covered by water, and most of the human body is composed of water - two facts illustrating the critical linkages between water, health and ecosystems.’ (WHO 2017)
A Safe Space
Ideally a course is able to foster a non-pressurised, supportive environment not geared towards ideas of success and failure. Taking the pressure to perform away means people feel more able to take part, and enjoy it. Many participants in surf-based initiatives have reported benefiting specifically from the relaxed social atmosphere and positive reinforcement they received. After all, surfing is famous for its laid-back and friendly community. As Marshall et al., concluded in a 2019 study:
‘The overarching focus on rejecting failure, removing pressure and providing a degree of autonomy appears to be integral to the success of the programme and a novel combination within a fundamentally skill-based intervention where failure is a naturally inherent element.’
For a lot of people, especially vulnerable young people, it also provided escapism from whatever they were dealing with at home. Due to its physical nature, surfing forces you to be entirely in the moment, and many found that a welcome distraction.
Surfing is fundamentally a skill-based practice. Many people participating in surf intervention programmes have reported that being able to master something, with its inevitable opportunities to fail and try again, led to a positive change in how they perceived themselves and their abilities. Individual agency is considered a basic psychological need, and allowing people to take it in this way is believed to accordingly improve their psychological wellbeing.
There is a growing scientific interest into the area of ‘blue care’ - ie using blue spaces, both freshwater and seawater, to promote and restore health. There are varying reasons for this - activities like wild swimming, which has enjoyed a resurgence in the last few years, are great for fostering community, alongside its other physical health benefits. Water is also considered uniquely therapeutic for the way it alters bodily sensations – for people with physical disabilities it offers a chance to move independent of mobility devices. A study of surf therapy on children with disabilities also found it beneficial to those on the autistic spectrum, who found it a perfect level of sensory input.
Who can it benefit?
At the end of the day, everyone can enjoy the benefits of the active, outdoors lifestyle surfing promotes. But studies on surfing as a therapeutic intervention have so far focused on a variety of vulnerable groups. The 2020 scoping review by Benninger et al., found benefits to the following people:
Vulnerable young people (e.g. in care) or people with a history of abuse
People with PTSD, Veterans and emergency workers. Their study found that for veteran and active duty service members surf therapy ‘provided respite from the symptoms of PTSD, decreased levels of stress, anxiety, depressive symptoms and use of narcotics, increased affect, and improvements in pain management’
Young people with disabilities - ‘Results included improvements in physical fitness, self-confidence, social development, behaviour and sleep, and reduced levels of anxiety.’ Their families also noticed it provided a ‘normalising’ opportunity for disabled children who often felt isolated or excluded from able-bodied peers, and a chance for ‘family bonding.’
Young adult cancer survivors - A 2014 study by Rosenberg et al. found ‘decreases in self-reported depression symptoms/depression as well as decreased feelings of alienation. [...] In addition, participants reported increased feelings of positive body image, self-esteem and self-compassion following the conclusion of their engagement in surfing’
Adults in recovery from addiction - A 2015 study by Harris et al., observed that surfing emphasised ‘mindful embodiment, developing secure attachment, self-empowerment, differentiation, and surfing as a ritual and spiritual experience.’ Essentially, surfing was able to foster the healing of the mind-body connection following the traumas of addiction.
Blue care: a systematic review of blue space interventions for health and wellbeing - Easkey Britton, Gesche Kindermann, Christine T Domegan, Catriona Carlin (2018) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338970285_Blue_care_a_systematic_review_of_blue_space_interventions_for_health_and_wellbeing Surf Therapy: A Scoping Review of the Qualititative and Quantitative Research Evidence - Elizabeth Benninger, Chloe Curtis, Gregor V. Sarkisian, Carly M. Rogers, Kailey Bender and Megan Comer (2020) https://www.gjcpp.org/en/article.php?issue=36&article=206 The Ocean as a Unique Therapeutic Environment: Developing a Surfing Program - Emily Clapham, Linda Lamont, Cortney Armitano-Lago, Jennifer Audette (2014) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271941613_The_Ocean_as_a_Unique_Therapeutic_Environment_Developing_a_Surfing_Program “When I Go There, I Feel Like I Can Be Myself.” Exploring Programme Theory within the Wave Project Surf Therapy Intervention - Jamie Marshall, Paul Kelly, and Ailsa Niven (2019) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6617262/