Surf therapy is actually a popular term and practice within the community of people around the globe who ride waves. Talk to any surfer and they’ll almost overwhelmingly respond with stories of leaving the water feeling better each day than before they entered.
This premise alone is the motivation behind countless non-profit organizations employing the benefits of what's now known as surf therapy. The Mauli Ola Foundation uses it as physical therapy for children with cystic fibrosis, with scientific evidence that supports saltwater provides relief from the disease’s symptoms. A Walk on Water and Surfer’s Healing both do the same for children with autism. And the Wounded Warriors Project also offers emotional aid and support to wounded veterans with disabilities as well as those with PTSD. The foundational belief behind all these programs is that time in the ocean heals. In particular, surfing has become a form of treatment — medical or therapeutic — for things like polytrauma (medical terms describing the condition of a person who has been subjected to multiple traumatic injuries), cystic fibrosis, autism, depression, and even PTSD. And of course, physical activity is often the first-prescribed treatment for any number of mental and emotional ailments. Surfing seems to have become a combination of many positive factors in this realm.
Even anecdotal evidence from some of the sport’s most prominent figures supports the same idea. Take professional surfer and filmmaker Cyrus Sutton, for example, who credits his obsession with surfing conquering his “demons.”
“Nature has been a necessity for me to operate at a level that’s competitive within society,” he wrote. “And all of my work, the jobs I take, the projects I try to do, they all give me that autonomy to be able to do that. And in turn, I choose not to do projects, regardless of the money, that may take me away from nature too long.
Loneliness, for me, is a fleeting emotion. My nourishment doesn’t come solely from companionship, it comes from purpose. I’d rather be alone in nature where everything has a purpose than surrounded by others who do not want the same things. My ultimate goal, and largely where I am at now, is to be with people I love and relate to surrounded by nature and this has all been possible by choosing to return to the natural world again and again.”
But anecdotal evidence aside, the popularity of “surf therapy” has come thanks to a growing understanding of physiological effects of things like “earthing” or “grounding.” Earthing is the simple practice of walking barefoot on a natural surface: grass, sand, dirt, you name it. And the same philosophy can be applied to being in the ocean and physical contact with saltwater. One 2012 study collected data of 60 participants and compared subject who employed the practice of grounding/earthing with those who didn’t. In everything from quality of sleep, alleviating chronic pains, stress and anxiety levels, and relief from asthmatic and respiratory conditions, the effects of earthing were proven. The study even went so far as to test the sleep patterns of people who slept in their normal beds versus people who were given a conductive “earthing” mattress for eight weeks. “Grounding the body at night during sleep also appears to positively affect morning fatigue levels, daytime energy, and nighttime pain levels,” the report said. This was relevant to the topic of depression as subjects that had been suffering from insomnia, a symptom of depression and stress, had positive results. It went on to credit Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman’s lectures on electromagnetism. “Feynman said that when the body potential is the same as the Earth's electric potential (and thus grounded), it becomes an extension of the Earth's gigantic electric system. The Earth's potential thus becomes the “working agent that cancels, reduces, or pushes away electric fields from the body.”
The Wave Project is a foundation based in the UK using surf therapy and mentoring to serve children struggling with low self-esteem, anxiety, or loneliness in order to help them feel better. “Our evidence-based surf therapy program is proven to help young people feel less anxious and more positive,” the organization claims. Simply put, they’re taking children and young teens surfing in an effort to steer them away from depression-like symptoms.
According to the BBC, research actually supports their claims. A BBC report shared that the Wave Project has actually published two independent reports which reviewed the effectiveness of their programs, finding it results in "a significant and sustained increase in wellbeing.”
“A total of 121 young people aged eight to 18 facing mental health issues or social exclusion were referred by health, education and social services,” the report reads. “Approximately 30% of referrals were from schools; 30% from NHS healthcare providers (GPs, nurses, psychologists); 20% from council-run social and family services; and 20% from other child support agencies (Action for Children, Young Carers).”
Results reported 96 percent of clients felt better, 98 percent were happier, 99 percent had fun, 89 percent made friends, and 87 percent felt more fit. “All wellbeing measures showed statistically significant change after the intervention and the effects were very robust. Location, gender and attendance were unrelated to any variable.”
"We would like to get to the point where this service is available to all children in Northern Ireland and for it to be prescribed as a new form of therapy for them," says Beth Griffin, Wave Project NI coordinator.
“The parents have expressed a lot of gratitude for the course and many have noticed an increase in confidence and resilience in their son or daughter,” adds coordinator Carla Magee. “One mother commented how much calmer her son has become since taking part in our surf therapy course. The young people have all given very positive feedback,” Magee continued, “even if they’ve been colder than ever before, they have all had so much fun and have a great sense of achievement in their skills. We have witnessed great improvements in skills each week, both surf skills and personal attributes of the kids. And with it, we have seen a huge improvement in their confidence.”