If you find the ocean as peaceful as you do exciting, it may not surprise you much to learn that ocean-based sports, like surfing, have long been described as therapeutic. Only in recent years have experts started to explore the mental health benefits of surf therapy.
In a nutshell, surf therapy involves using the principles of surfing to benefit mental health.
During a surf therapy session, you’ll learn to use a surfboard to ride waves, which might feel exciting and fun. But this therapeutic exercise can also help you build confidence, relax, and move your body.
If you haven’t spent much time by the ocean, surf therapy may offer the added benefit of a completely different therapy environment.
Most therapists likely won’t recommend surf therapy as a first-line treatment for mental health conditions. Still, this unique approach could prove helpful when used with other treatments, like psychotherapy.
Read on to dive into the potential benefits of surf therapy, plus get the details on how it works and how to try it.
Surf therapy can provide a calming, sensory experience that may help relieve emotional distress and ease a range of mental health or physical symptoms.
For instance, many surf therapy programs offer sessions to people with:
- substance use disorders
- chronic pain
- physical disabilities
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
But surf therapy isn’t just for people with diagnosed conditions. Anyone can benefit from the approach, emphasizes Roxy Davis, a qualified surf coach and registered psychological counselor currently completing a PhD in surf therapy.
Surf therapy may offer the following specific benefits:
It may help address mental health symptoms
Surf therapy may help improve symptoms of:
A 2019 study considered the effects of a 6-week surf therapy program for U.S. military service members. Researchers found that surf therapy seemed to reduce depression and anxiety among participants and promote a more positive mood overall.
Surf therapy may also have benefits if you live with PTSD: It may help boost your brain’s ability to tamp down an overactive fight-or-flight response, while also helping improve your mood and emotional mindset.
According to 2020 research, surf therapy helped ease symptoms of PTSD and major depression in active-duty military service members. Participants living with both PTSD and major depression appeared to benefit the most. Not only did surf therapy seem to reduce their depression and anxiety, but it also helped improve their overall mood.
It can provide a sensory experience for autistic people
Many experts and autistic people consider autism a part of their identity, not a condition that requires treatment.
Surf therapy doesn’t “treat” autism — but the sounds of the ocean, the repetition of the waves, and the distance from potentially overwhelming noises can provide a sensory experience that many autistic people find soothing and comforting.
According to 2018 research, many parents of autistic children say surf therapy seems to reduce anxiety and promote better sleep for their children. Others note the tightness of the wetsuit provides pressure that also helps some children feel calmer and more relaxed.
Surf therapy may also help autistic children:
- learn and practice independence and basic life skills
- cope with sensory stimuli
- practice speaking and nonspeaking communication skills
- gain confidence
While research on surf therapy including autistic adult participants remains limited, these benefits may extend to people of any age.
It’s a form of exercise
What’s more, exercise may help lower your chances of developing depression.
It offers the opportunity to unplug from electronics
Surfing requires that you tune in to your body and pay close attention to the movement of the waves.
This act of engaging in the present moment and focusing on what’s happening around you can promote mindfulness, which may help ease feelings of tension and stress, and foster a sense of calm.
It promotes environmental awareness
It may also prompt a deeper appreciation for the ocean, including its creatures and ecosystems.
It may promote self-esteem and resilience
Never thought you’d be able to stand up on a surfboard and ride a wave? Trying activities you once considered “impossible” may help you:
- cultivate self-esteem
- trust yourself more easily
- feel more confident in your own abilities
Davis says she’s noticed, over the past 2 decades, that learning to surf seems to foster self-esteem among her participants.
“Say you’re a child who’s come from a school where, maybe, you’re not the top of anything in academics or sport, and your coach says to you that your goal is to stand up. When you stand up and ride the wave, you feel like, ‘Wow, if I can do that, I can do anything,’” she says.
It provides an opportunity to connect with others
Davis says surf therapy can have a ripple effect that goes beyond the person in the water. In addition to providing space to meet new people and practice social skills, surfing can offer the chance to connect.
Like other types of therapy or wellness activities that take place in a group, surf therapy can help you meet new people, socialize, and even bond with other family members trying it out.
Research from 2017 explored the benefits of surf therapy for 48 children and adolescents in foster care. According to the results, surf therapy appeared to help improve social skills, interpersonal relationships, and emotional regulation, along with time management and problem-solving skills.
Davis, a nine-time South African surfing champion, founded the Roxy Davis Foundation in 2019. This nonprofit provides surf therapy and adaptive surfing sessions to anyone who wants to participate.
Adaptive surfing uses specialized equipment or extra assistance to allow people with disabilities to surf safely. In short, instructors adapt the surfing experience to meet the needs of the surfer.
Davis explains that she encourages family-level participation in surfing, often through adaptive surfers teaching their siblings. This adds another level of empowerment to the program and has a positive impact on the whole family, including parents, she says.
Surf therapy programs differ from organization to organization. Some groups offer one-off sessions, while others create programs where participants come back weekly, every 2 weeks, or once a month.
Generally, though, your session will most likely involve:
- a warm-up or icebreaker on the beach
- a safety discussion
- a demonstration of how to surf while you remain on the beach
- entering the water with the instructor
- learning to surf at your own pace in the ocean
That said, the structure and pace of your session will depend largely on your own needs and comfort level. If you feel hesitant about entering the water or anxious about the waves, your instructor might spend time with you on the beach or in the water, talking through the process.
Davis explains that participants should lead the way. Your instructor shouldn’t push you to try surfing before you feel ready.
Letting you control the session makes you part of the decision making process, Davis says. In short, you’re contributing to your own course.
You don’t have to have prior surfing experience to benefit from surf therapy. It’s totally fine if you’ve never surfed before or spent much time in the water at all.
If you’re not a confident swimmer, though, your coordinator or surf therapy coach might offer some additional support, like providing an extra instructor.
Surf therapy remains a relatively new approach, but a number of organizations around the world have started to offer surf therapy sessions in an effort to make it more accessible and inclusive.
Though it might go without saying, you do need to live near a beach, or have the ability to travel to a beach, to try surf therapy.
If surf therapy is an option in your area, you can start by searching the internet for surf therapy programs near you.
Davis also suggests exploring programs affiliated with the International Surf Therapy Organization. This organization currently conducts research on surf therapy and works to develop industry standards for the practice.
“It’s very important to choose an organization that takes safety as a massive responsibility,” Davis says.
If you have a physical disability of any kind, you may also want to try an organization with trained adaptive surfing instructors.
According to Davis, surf therapy can be safe and fun for people with a range of physical, developmental, or mental health conditions. Adaptive surf therapy makes it possible to try surf therapy, even if you have trouble standing on a surfboard.
Most existing surf therapy research focuses on children, but adults can benefit, too.
“We’ve taken surfers from the age of 18 months all the way up to 85 years,” Davis says.
Just know some organizations may set limitations on their programs. For instance, some programs only provide surf therapy to people in specific age categories, while other programs focus on people living with specific conditions or disabilities.
It’s always a good idea to contact an organization directly to ask if their program might work for you or your child.
Can it replace therapy?
Instead, surf therapy generally works best as an adjunctive treatment. This means it can work alongside standard approaches to treatment.
It never hurts to let your primary care doctor or therapist know if you’re interested in adding more treatment approaches, whether it’s surf therapy or something else.
Surfing can offer a way to exercise and unwind in a natural environment, and emerging evidence suggests it could do your mental health some good.
The increasing popularity of surf therapy may lead to more support for its potential benefits, plus more widespread opportunities for anyone to ride the waves.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.