Even for those of us lucky enough to call ourselves “healthy,” surfing has a therapeutic effect. The stress of everyday life piles up quickly, and whether we experience family, financial, or work-related stress, surfing has the unique ability to release them all. This release is essential for us to think clearly, examine problems, and find solutions to the issues that antagonize us. Surfing helps us heal the bumps and bruises of life we experience along the way.
If normal levels of stress and anxiety can be equated to bumps or bruises, then the stress that accompanies overcoming addiction is like being hit by a bus. The body and mind simultaneously experience an anguish that can seem impossible to overcome. However, Saltwater Session founder Dr. Lena Dicken has identified surfing as a way of alleviating the crippling stress that comes with battling addiction. In her doctoral dissertation, she explored surfing as a mindfulness practice that helps treat addiction. This research lead her to create Saltwater Sessions: a comprehensive 8-week addiction treatment program that centers around surfing, but also incorporates mindfulness practice and positive reappraisal.
Dicken identified surfing as an ideal “green exercise” for several different reasons. The first is that surfing immerses the client in nature. Being outside helps reduce stress, improve attention capacity, boost mood, and increase overall well being. Additionally, when quitting certain substances, the body has a difficult time naturally producing and releasing neuro-chemicals like oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine. This can add to the client’s feelings of depression and despair. Surfing naturally stimulates the production of these chemicals in the brain, and it results in feelings of happiness and well being. Furthermore, surfing can be integrated into a client’s lifestyle in a sustainable, lifelong way that few other practices can be.
Surfing in itself is a powerful everyday mindfulness practice. To catch waves and avoid being cleaned up by sets, surfers have to be constantly aware of their bodies, their boards, and their location in the lineup. This can help foster a self-awareness that acts as a valuable tool for leading a healthy, sober life. Plus, the challenges of surfing closely mimic the challenges of overcoming addiction. Learning to surf is tough: the lineup is a whole new world that can be difficult to navigate. However, with close attention, plenty of practice, and patience with oneself, the reward of riding a great wave is very achievable. In this way, surfing instills clients with a sense of self-confidence; it shows them that with hard work, they have the strength to overcome their addiction.
The program also integrates surfing with mindfulness and positive reappraisal. Mindfulness practice has been shown to be more effective in the treatment of addiction that the two traditional methods: 12 step and group therapy. Mindfulness effectively teaches clients to create space between what they experience and the emotions they feel in response, and clients can practice mindfulness as they surf. This simple separation allows clients to evaluate their thought processes, and it helps them create habitually healthier thoughts.
Surfing also helps clients put positive reappraisal into practice. Positive reappraisal teaches clients to reconstruct challenging events as valuable and beneficial experiences. Learning to surf is without question challenging, but clients focus on the positives: they grow stronger, healthier, and happier through it. Likewise, overcoming addiction is incredibly challenging, but clients learn to see it as an opportunity for personal growth and a chance to live healthy, substance-free lives.
Salwater Sessions demonstrates just another healing power of surfing, and it reminds us of the strength and self-confidence surfing instills in us all each time we paddle out.