When Surfing Offers More than a Stoke
The sea and sun, the sands and swell. These are the stuff that initially draw people towards surfing.
Published by Wave Tribe
People surf because they want to feel the excitement of riding a wave.
Once they’ve experienced it, most never let go. Pro surfer Stephanie Gilmore perhaps said it best when she talked about her surfing experience: “Surfing is the first thing I can remember being consumed by."
Indeed, nothing beats the thrill of catching and then riding the wave.
From the ebb and flow of waiting for the perfect wave to the rising anticipation of catching it and finally, the euphoria of riding it all the way to the sand. These are the things that define the stoke of surfing.
It’s also what defines this activity in the eyes of the public. It’s a thrill-seeking sport left largely to slackers, so goes the popular stereotype. But do they know that surfing can do more than just satisfy adrenaline–seeking junkies?
Thanks to research being done by scientists, it appears that surfing is a reliable form of therapy for veterans dealing with posttraumatic stress.
Therapy for PTSD
The United States Naval Medical Center in San Diego is studying whether surfing can have a therapeutic value for persons suffering from post-traumatic stress order, depression or sleep problems. The study, which began in 2016 and was just wrapped up this June 2018, studied the effect of surfing on the mental and physical health outcomes for active-duty service men.
Traumatic stress is a common condition among military personnel especially those returning from overseas deployment. In a 2013 study conducted by the Congressional Research Service, it found out that there was a 65 percent increase in cases of mental health illnesses among active duty personnel between 2001 and 2011. In fact, PTSD cases increased by 650 percent and more than 900,000 individuals were diagnosed with a mental disorder during that period.
PTSD can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like a combat, assault or disaster. While it is normal for most people to undergo stress reactions after a trauma, it usually disappears after a person recovers. If the reactions don’t go away over time and disrupts everyday routine, then it could be PTSD.
Among veterans, the memories of their experience in the battlefield can still haunt them even after they have transitioned to civilian life. PTSD can still affect the lives of the veterans even decades after they stopped serving in the military.
In fact, it was the previous research on the mental health of veterans returning from combat that helped create the PTSD diagnosis. So today, the history of what is now known as PTSD often references combat history.
As surfers, we are all familiar with that scary but exciting feeling when facing an elemental force like a major swell. It’s like a perfect balance of feeling s*** scared but at the same time, every muscle in your body is feeling alive. It’s that same feeling that veterans are tapping into whenever they surf. According to Caddick, when veterans surf, they feel like their PTSD is being pummelled out of their system by the raw force of the waves.
— Derek Dodds, Wave Tribe Founder
Types of PTSD
According to the National Center of PTSD, there are four types of PTSD symptoms. These are:
● Reliving the traumatic event - Memories of the event can come back in the form of nightmares. Sometimes, certain sensations can even trigger you to relive the event. This is called a flashback.
● Avoiding situations that remind you of the event – Because you don’t want to relive the trauma, you begin to avoid doing things that remind you of the event. You avoid thinking of the event, or you stop putting yourself in situations which will remind you of the event.
● Negative changes in your beliefs and attitudes – The trauma makes you angry at the world and may cause you to shut yourself off from your family and friends. It can make you view the world as a dangerous place.
● Feeling keyed up – And because you feel the world is dangerous, you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. You feel tense, irritated, easily disrupted. Experts call this state as hyperarousal.
The Blue Gym
The treatment for PTSD usually involves medication and psychotherapy. But it doesn’t work every time for everyone. This is why the Navy research is promising.
This is not the first time that surfing is being studied as a valid therapy. At the Veterans and Families Institute, ARU, psychologist Nick Caddick is among the first researchers to document the positive effects that a therapy based on surfing can have on veterans afflicted with PTSD.
According to Caddick, the foundations of the premise for this approach lies in the concept of the “Blue Gym”. What this basically means is that physical activities in aquatic environments, such as swimming in the sea, or kayaking in rivers, suggests a much higher positive impact on the mental and physical wellness of people than in urban or green environments.
Caddick’s research, which involved interviewing and observing British war veterans, showed that surfing has strong and positive emotional benefits on their mental health.
Going with the Flow
As surfers, we are all familiar with that scary but exciting feeling when facing an elemental force like a major swell. It’s like a perfect balance of feeling s*** scared but at the same time, every muscle in your body is feeling alive.
It’s that same feeling that veterans are tapping into whenever they surf. According to Caddick, when veterans surf, they feel like their PTSD is being pummelled out of their system by the raw force of the waves.
In many ways, what these veterans are experiencing can be summed up as being in the zone. Or to state it in another way: going with the flow.
As a psychological term, being in the flow means being so wrapped up in the experience that one loses sense of time and space. It’s like meditating except one is doing it on a surfing board. In the case of the veterans, surfing allows their minds to jettison all the traumatic memories that constantly cycle through them. It shuts up the ghosts of traumas past.
Tuning with the Environment
It also helps that surfing requires you to get down and wet with the ocean. Being close to nature has positive effects on mental wellness, according to researches.
The unpredictability of the surfing environment can also have a positive impact on the recovering veterans. Because one can’t control a wave, anything can happen. This unpredictability could help build up the resilience of our surfing veterans. When the wave throws you off the board, just climb back, paddle and catch the next wave. It’s an exercise in self-determination and overcoming the odds.
Surfing towards Recovery
Having been surfing most of my life, I can say that it’s more than just riding the waves. It’s embracing a whole new lifestyle with a large community of generally altruistic and conscientious surfers. I love that it’s providing our veterans a sense of hope, healing and community. Because that is what surfing in essence really is: it’s taking what the ocean throws and riding with it until it goes down the sand.
Persistence to overcome the waves and determination to see it through. One could say that as well for our veterans. At the end of the day, surfing will see them through.
So, here’s my hat off to our courageous veterans and to the surfers helping them. Continue sharing the stoke, bros!