One chilly morning last December I clambered atop a sand dune at my local break to find a roaring winter ocean. The waves were dreamy. One after another, 8-foot peaks folded into perfect emerald cylinders as the offshore wind blew tails of mist out to sea.

Giddy, I dashed back to my car and peeled off my warm clothes all at once. I barely even felt the cold wind whipping against my bare skin as I stepped into my soggy wetsuit, grabbed my surfboard, and ran toward the water.

I feel the freest from my anxiety when the surf is big

Anxiety is the backdrop to my existence, an invisible force that accompanies me through each day. I learned to worry young and have been worrying ever since. And it takes a lot to distract me from my own thoughts.

But there’s one thing that grounds me in the present like nothing else can: the fear I feel when the surf is big. It’s become the unlikely hero in my mental health journey.

Ironically, the immediate fear of being crushed by powerful surf liberates me from the constant stream of anxiety-borne fears — most of which are irrational — that take up so much space in my mind.

What’s memorable about that day and others like it is how liberating it felt to be so radically present.

That day in December, as I paddled out driven by willful determination, all around me waves erupted spectacularly, and the reverberations rattled my body. But as fear welled in my stomach, I instinctually turned my focus to my breathing.

Guided by slow, steady breaths, my body moved through the water seamlessly. I felt unencumbered by worries or ruminations and, instead, became hyperaware of my surroundings. The salt in the air, the glare off the water, the explosions of waves breaking — it all took on a crystalline quality.

What’s memorable about that day and others like it is how liberating it felt to be so radically present.

It’s about being “in the zone”

Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin, a professor and co-director for the Center for Collaborative Brain Research at Bradley University, explains my experience as the state of peak performance, or being “in the zone.”

“When you’re ‘in the zone,’ you’re in that really nice state of parasympathetic modality, that resting and relaxing state,” she says.

“And the best way to get ‘in the zone’ is to breathe well.”

In a class Russell-Chapin teaches on asthmatic breathing, she tells her students that they can achieve calm focus in their everyday life by training themselves to breathe through their diaphragms.

“Most of us are shallow breathers. We breathe through our chest, not our diaphragm,” she says. “I believe if you’re breathing correctly — using diaphragmatic breathing — you cannot be physiologically anxious.”

Cold water: a jump-start for the brain

I’ve always treated cold water as something I had to endure. I’m not the type to romanticize the discomforts of adventure — cold water can be quite uncomfortable.

But as it turns out, cold water has some pretty unique effects on the body, including a number of .

“[After I surf] I’m a lot happier and have more energy. This could be interrelated to the reduction in epilepsy symptoms, but in my view the body is all connected. You can’t separate mental health from physiological health.” — Olivia Stagaro

For one, immersing ourselves in cold water benefits our mood by stimulating the release of endorphins. It also sends loads of electrical impulses to our brain, producing an effect similar to electroshock therapy, which has been used to treat depression.

Russell-Chapin says one of the reasons surfing, especially when done in cold water, can have such a positive impact on mental health is because it simultaneously activates both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

“When we get in cold water, the body is stimulated and forced to decide what to do,” she says. “And [when you’re surfing] you also have to involve the parasympathetic system in order to be calm enough for the sensory motor cortex to activate so you can have that sense of balance.”

For Olivia Stagaro, a senior in neuropsychology at Santa Clara University, surfing in cold water started out as a way to treat her epilepsy symptoms.

After her doctors suggested surgically implanting a device that would stimulate her vagus nerve, Stagaro decided to do some research. She found one of the ways to stimulate the vagus nerve naturally is by getting in cold water.

“I started getting in the ocean more regularly and noticed that on days I went surfing, I usually didn’t have any [epilepsy] symptoms,” says Stagaro.

She’s also noticed a change in her mental health.

“[After I surf] I’m a lot happier and have more energy. This could be interrelated to the reduction in epilepsy symptoms, but in my view the body is all connected. You can’t separate mental health from physiological health.”

Surfing tricks me into exercising

My anxiety is irrational. It isn’t solution-oriented or productive. In fact, it works against me in all sorts of ways. And one way my anxiety really tries to get me down is by coercing me into being sedentary.

The great thing about surfing, however, is that it doesn’t feel like a chore the way other forms of exercise can. And while I don’t surf for the exercise, physical activity is built into the experience. Which is great because, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, our brains love exercise, as Russell-Chapin explains:

“For self-regulation on a daily basis, there’s nothing better for you than exercise,” says Russell-Chapin. “As your heart rate goes up, it starts pumping more blood, and more oxygen gets to the brain, which is what we need to keep functioning.”

The special bond between women who surf

Surfing may have originated in Polynesia but nowadays surf culture is lauded over by a global hierarchy of straight white men. Everyone else is welcome, but only if they adhere to the rules set by the hegemony. If you want to get (good) waves, you better be aggressive and opportunistic.

But despite having to contend with an ocean full of testosterone every time I go surfing, being a woman also means that I’m automatically welcomed into the broader community of female surfers.

Usually when I encounter another woman in the water, I can tell that we’re both genuinely excited to see one another. Even if it’s just a brief smile in passing, we share a subtle understanding of what’s it’s like to be the minority.

These interactions help my overall well-being by pulling me out of my head and forcing me to engage with my surroundings. Being able to relate to other women about surfing affirms not only my experience but my existence.

Stagaro has only been surfing for a year but she can also attest to the welcoming nature of many women who surf.

“I got wonderful last place in the Woman on the Waves event in Capitola. It was one of the most supportive, immersive communities I’ve ever been part of. Even though it was a competition, the women were encouraging each other. People were very team-minded and incredibly supportive,” says Stagaro.

Surfing makes me think about what’s next instead of dwelling on the past

I owe surfing so much. Because if I’m being honest, there are days when I feel absolutely panicked about having to live the rest of my life as me.

But somewhere beneath that desperation resides another piece of knowledge: I’ll always have surfing, which means the future is full of potential. After all, I’m always one session away from riding the best wave of my life.


Ginger Wojcik works on Healthline’s production team. She loves surfing, writing, and breakfast — in that order. Follow more of her work on Medium.