The Connection Between Surfing and Mental Health
There is a nearly indescribable feeling that comes over us in the water. A calmness, a determination, sometimes an invincibility. This is a feeling that is unique to the pursuit of surfing. As science is now learning, it’s not an imagined Zen―these effects are not only real, but are proving increasingly beneficial to those living with mental illness and mental health disorders. A 2010 British study sought to test this hypothesis through a six-week study for aspiring surfers between the ages of twelve and twenty-three, with mental illnesses ranging from depression to schizophrenia and psychosis. What they found is that six weeks of surfing was enough to provide not only physical benefit – creating surfers that could stand up and catch waves “at a reasonable standard” ― but also mental benefits, including heightened self-esteem, perceptions of fun, and the ability to stave off negative feelings. A South African organization called Waves for Change also recognized the positive mental changes that could come from time in the water and capitalized on it to grow their program, which combines use of surfing and therapy to tackle mental illness. On a continent where many countries have no access to mental health therapy, this program stands out for creatively addressing a rampant public health worry. Presently, it is the third most pressing health concern in the country (after HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis), but Waves for Change has grown from two surfers to over four hundred while effectively addressing anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of trauma that can seem endemic - some estimates indicate that 1 in 5 children suffer from PTSD. And back Stateside, researcher Ryan Pittsinger of the University of Iowa found that just one half hour surfing unlocked feelings of calm and heightened mood in surveyed Manhattan Beach surfers. So, the positive, mind-calming effects of surfing has been documented well across not just the country, but the world. The question now stands: why? Why does surfing have this effect? A closer look at the sport is showing it may not just be the practice of surfing, but also the chemicals it creates and provokes that make a difference. As with other activities that arouse passion in their participants, surfing elevates two key hormones that counteract powerfully the hormones and neurotransmitters that facilitate mental illness: adrenaline and dopamine. The former raises your heart rate and increases your reaction time (allowing you to progress in the very act of learning to surf); the latter is triggered when you find enjoyment in an activity, making you feel good and confident in what you’re doing. But it’s not just the internal chemical process that affects mood while surfing. “Surf stoke,” or the calm but powerful feeling that comes from surfing, increasingly appears to be the result of a chemical reaction happening in the air surrounding waves as they churn and break. The turbulence in the air created by breaking waves leads to the breaking of air and water molecules, releasing charged ions. This release of negatively charged ions has proven to lift the spirits by triggering the release of endorphins and serotonin―hormones and neurotransmitters that affect mood―in the surfer. This domino effect of positive hormone and chemical releases seems to last well after one has left the water, along with an increase of blood flow and circulation of oxygen in the body that would come with any aerobic exercise that one chooses to undertake. Given that running or biking don’t provide the same opportunity to churn the all-important ions, surfing seems to be a uniquely healing experience. These skills are particularly important to another group that Pittsinger is working with these days: U.S. Marines who have been diagnosed with combat-related PTSD. His Camp Pendleton-based study, seeking to utilize what he calls “ocean therapy,” hopes to help these former soldiers take the lessons of confidence, devotion, and trust, and use them both on the water as they learn to surf and in group discussions to help them address their struggles from during and after their time in combat. Make no mistake, these benefits can come to anyone who chooses to embrace the stoke – not just those seeking to improve their mental health. Bev Sanders, founder of Las Olas Surf Safaris for Women, recognizes its potential to help anyone seeking to center themselves in a society that rarely affords us the permission to slow down: “You have to be forgiving, patient with yourself, and willing to let go. You’re really not thinking about anything else and that’s hard to come by these days.” In many ways, the benefits cited from surfing mimic those cited from a different popular means of treating mental illness: meditation. The presence it requires―you worry about little else, beyond finding the next wave and making it to shore safely – can make it a high-impact, high-thrill alternative to the often touted practice. Mntanywa, one of the South African youth benefiting from South Africa’s Waves for Change program, recognizes the importance of that presence in helping him deal with his traumatic past: Just being in the water — away from his family and in a beautiful place — helps him deal with his past. "Pasts don't go away, man. It's always on your mind. But when I'm in the beach," he says, "I always think about the waves." So, if you’re near the water, and are in need of a boost, a surprisingly effective way to combat the blues may be hiding just over the next set of waves.
Island Time: The Best Surf Spots
The ocean is full of beauty and wonder – the crashing waves, the rise and fall of the tides, and the abundance of wildlife. One of the best ways to witness this majestic part of our planet is by surfboard. Surfing connects us with the planet and causes us to have a greater appreciation for the world around us. From Florida to California to Hawaii and Australia, there are plenty of opportunities to experience the wonder of the ocean. Sometimes swells are small, while others are large, and water can range from crystal clear to blue, green, and gray. No matter where you are in the world, you are bound to find some incredible surf at your local beach. However, you’ll probably want to head to an island to catch some of the best waves around. Here we bring you the top 10 best islands for surfing. But, we’re warning you: After seeing the list, you’ll get that travel itch. So, make sure your passport is ready and your board is waxed … we’re going island hopping! Bali, India Easily considered the best surfing island on earth, Bali has everything to create a surfer’s paradise. Powerful and consistent waves - check. Exciting nightlife - check. Surfers have been flocking to the island to surf in the Indian Ocean waters since the 70s. Along with the killer surf, Bali offers its visitors beautiful scenery, Hindu culture, and the charm of the locals. Definitely a must-see. Thanburudhoo, Maldives Just a small piece of land located in the Indian Ocean, uninhabited Thanburudhoo offers quality waves. It was once exclusively Tony Hinde-Hussein and friends’ surfing retreat, and then later became a military firing range, which, needless to say, ended surfing on this island for the time being. Now, after the end of the ban on surfing and end of flying bullets, the island is a favorite among local surf charter boats. Thanburudhoo, the last unpopulated islands of North Malé, may soon become a “boutique surfing resort” with access to the best waves in the Maldives. Oahu, Hawaii This island should come as no surprise, as it has been a popular surfing destination for decades now. It’s safe to say that most aspects of modern surfing have been influenced by the events that have taken place on the island, starting with the images of the Waikiki beach boys of the 30s. Surfers flock to the North Shore of Oahu every winter to take their place amongst the world’s best surfers. This is highlighted during the Triple Crown of Surfing, three big-wave events that take place during five weeks of competitions and performances. Siargao, Philippines As of late, Siargao has become one of the most popular surfing destinations in the Far East. The island has been on every travel surfer’s radar since 1992 when Cloud 9 was first introduced. Even with issues of overcrowding, the island is still a favorite among Filipino and foreign surfers alike. Barbados Barbados, a former British Colony, is placed perfectly in the Atlantic Ocean. There are few flat days, and the occasional in-season hurricane swell makes the island an ideal location for surfers to flock to. Barbados is small in size, making it easily accessible, and getting to and from the different surf spots is a breeze. With accommodation choices ranging from mansions to one-bedroom apartments, there are options for every surfer’s traveling budget. Santa Catarina, Brazil Far from hectic Rio and Sao Paulo, Santa Catarina strikes the perfect combination of quality waves and a European ambiance. The island is located in Southern Brazil and is insanely popular among the local Brazilian, Argentine, and Uruguayan surfers. The best season for killer waves (over 40 surfable waves in some areas) is March-April and September-October. Oh, and don’t worry – you’ll feel safe and sound. The island is considered one of the safest urban cities in Brazil, not to mention it isn’t short of delicious restaurants and energetic nightlife to wrap up a long day of surfing. North Island, New Zealand With friendly locals, easy-to-navigate roads, and lots of waves, it’s no wonder that North Island made our list. Both the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea offer a haven from overcrowded surf territory among a backdrop of picturesque green hills. And, due to the relaxed lifestyle, many compare North Island’s vibe to that of California’s surf scene of the 1950s. Taiwan, China China may not be the first destination that comes to mind when you think of great surf spots, but the island of Taiwan is a growing favorite among surf enthusiasts. Kenting, in the south of the island, is the capital of Taiwanese surfing. The town is filled with plenty of restaurants, hotels, and, of course, surf shops. To catch the best waves, you’ll want to visit the island during July to October, but, be warned of typhoon season. Since typhoons aren’t completely predictable, if you visit during this time you’ll have to be up for anything. Jeju, South Korea A volcanic island, Jeju is the Hawaii of South Korea. More than 1 million people visit the island each year, but it wasn’t deemed a surf destination until recently when local Korean surfers discovered it. When a typhoon moves north from Taiwan into the East Sea, it causes bigger swells on both sides of the island. With such great waves and few surfers to ride them, who wouldn’t want to make the trip? Reunion, France While most people might think of Paris when traveling to France, to surfers the real French paradise is found on the tropical island of Reunion. The waves are great, especially in the southern hemisphere’s winter season from April to October, but it is worth noting that there are big sharks in the area during this time. This doesn’t stop local and visiting surfers, but they do proceed with caution and utilize good judgment.
Surfing Builds Character
Whether you’re surfing on the North Shore of Oahu or skimboarding ankle biters, any experienced surfer can tell you that surfing isn’t a sport that comes with an easy benchmark for success. Put into practice first by high-born Polynesians, the surfing tradition has evolved as the centuries have, calling on generations of participants to learn the patience that comes with waiting for just the right wave and the select combination of skill and intuition.. The fundamental truth of surfing is this: Unlike politics and investment banking, you’re unlikely to reach those lofty peaks with only yourself in mind. Engaging with the Sea The best surfers learn early that, with respect for the wave comes respect for the ocean – at least in part because the sport itself is entirely contingent on nature's cooperation. If the waters are choked with trash, if the wind isn't moving, if any number of interdependent factors fail to come together at the right moment, no amount of skill on the board can change the outcome. Though every surfer hopes for the chance to snag a snapshot moment on a high wave, the chance means waiting – sometimes for hours or even days – and accepting no certainty of reward at the end. Going Green With the ocean currently under threat from an increasing litany of issues directly relating to change, including rising seas and pollution, surfers have begun to come together with astonishing political power. Several groups have called for cleaner beaches and a stronger movement to halt sea level rise – which continues to contribute to erosion in a growing number of communities, whose members are even now watching the stunning landscapes that once put them on the map slip irretrievably away. One such community is the Save Trestles Campaign, which took action against plans to construct a road that would have endangered San Mateo Creek – a popular surfing spot and thriving habitat for marine animals. Other groups have singlehandedly, and often successfully, tackled environmentally destructive development plans and pollution, saving beaches and wild animals from habitat loss. Staying Safe Of course, no surfer enters the water without the deeply held understanding that any wrong move can mean injury and even death – for themselves and bystanders. Surprisingly, attacks by marine animals are among the most common causes of injury, followed by wipe-outs on sand or rocky outcroppings. A surfer who's miscalculated the energy and breadth of a wave can also easily be swept underneath, held down by a surging current, or knocked unconscious by a falling surfboard, all of which can lead to drowning or serious injury. In the communal environment inherent to beach life, it’s nearly impossible, and always conspicuous, to surf without the safety of others in mind. Established beach etiquette, though still largely unspoken, arose as American surf culture did in the 1960s, as popular beaches became increasingly crowded and chaotic. The rules, though they vary by location and culture, are strictly enforced by most beach-goers, and those eager to cut corners for a shot at glory will often find themselves outnumbered. Surfers also use shorthand to define the right of way in the water, and a line order that everyone is expected to follow while paddling out. The system is simple, but it works, ensuring that everyone in the water understands where to expect other surfers to appear and how to avoid them when necessary. Fewer injuries are typically reported at beaches with a cohesive system of rules, and, as a community, surfers have proven more than willing to embrace them. Down to Mindset Balancing over hundreds of feet of crashing water takes more than an afternoon of practice to master, which is largely why so many experienced surfers paddle out at nearly every available moment. Persistence is the key to mastery. And persistence means falling hundreds, sometimes thousands of times, often in front of spectators, and running the gantlet of emotions that go hand in hand with continuous failure. And still, the best of the best are those still willing to get up, dust themselves off, and paddle right back out for another try. Like so many other difficult tasks in life, it usually is not enough to suffer a public fall only once. With everything in the water in constant flux, nailing a perfect run means cultivating the ability to think far past the moment, without ever letting outside distractions in. As new contingencies evolve by the moment, even pitch-perfect accuracy and positioning isn't always enough, and, in many cases, success comes down to hard-won practice, and the ability to suffer with grace the consequences of wrong actions. The Art of Technique Surfing techniques, from the standard paddle to the more visually stunning front side snap, are nearly as individual as surfers themselves are. Those who stick with the sport often choose to brand themselves with signature moves, such as Australian champion Tyler Wright—who famously made the Big Frontside Kick her own. It's a recognized mark of a professional, to be able to bring a spark of creative flair to a sport that requires so much intensive focus. Generations of surfers – both pro and those at an amateur level – have upped the ante for newcomers by imbuing the sport with a healthy sense of creative, as well as physical, competition. Final Thoughts In any sport with a diverse range of participants, equipment selection often comes down to skill and often requires a helping hand from a professional in the know. Surfing is a great sport. Not only is it fun and a great way to remain in shape, but it can also help build character. Respect for nature and yourself remains an essential element of surfer culture.