Riding the waves can reduce stress and improve one’s overall well-being.
A recently published Australian pilot study suggests that surfing has tangible mental health benefits, even for those not suffering from a clinically diagnosable mental illness. These benefits include improved self-esteem and reduced social isolation, both of which can be helpful in treating anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.
The research looked specifically at surf therapy programs that aim to bring together supportive surfing instruction with other activities that encourage psychosocial well-being. In creating an emotionally safe environment, these programs provide students with a heightened sense of social connectiveness as well as a sense of accomplishment that they can then transfer to other aspects of their lives.
Mental health benefits are thought to arise from the all-encompassing focus surfing requires, allowing sessions to serve as a respite from day-to-day stressors. Research also shows that a physiological response occurs while surfing, defined by the reduction of stress hormones and the release of mood-elevating neurotransmitters in the brain. Being in a natural environment, particularly a “blue space” on or near water, enhances these benefits.
The study focused on the Ocean Mind surf therapy program specifically, setting out to determine if sessions improved the psychological well-being of children and adolescents. Researchers selected 36 participants, ages 8 to 18, that were currently seeking help for mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, or a neurodevelopmental disorder like autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The participants selected to participate in surf therapy continued with their regular care regimens but also took surf sessions for two hours every weekend for six weeks. They worked one-on-one with a community mentor who was trained in both surfing instruction and mental health literacy as well as in groups led by the program director.
By the end of the six-week program, those selected to participate in group therapy had witnessed a reduction in symptoms as well as a reduction in emotion and peer problems. In contrast, the control group had an increase in these symptoms and problems. It is crucial to note that these improvements did not remain after the program had finished. Still, the program had a high completion rate (87%) as compared to traditional forms of therapy, which tend to have lower outcomes.
While the study is promising, it is a pilot study, and more research is required to fully confirm the results and determine if they apply to broader populations. Further studies could also determine the best dose in terms of session frequency, duration, and program length. Essentially, surf therapy could serve as an additional form of support alongside traditional treatments such as talk therapy and medication.
While surfing may not be for everyone, according to another study published in 2021, other outdoor activities, such as gardening and hiking, can be just as effective in improving mental health. A recent study published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine also affirmed that people who frequently visited parks and green or blue spaces near their homes had a significantly lower chance of needing to take medications for hypertension, mental health, and asthma. These ancillary studies support the findings that being outside in nature, in general, has therapeutic benefits.
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