Even though the link between sports in general and mental health is well documented, surfing is an effective stress therapy that is often overlooked.
Research shows that surfing can improve the mental health of military veterans, people living with disabilities, and vulnerable youth. Other studies have also concluded that surf therapy can assist in alleviating anxiety and depression.
But how can you make surfing and stress relief work for you? This is the question we set out to answer in this article.
To better understand how surfing can help with stress release, let’s start by looking at stress and its causes. Because surfing allows you to exercise and interact with nature, we will also look at the connection between exercise, spending time in nature, and surfing.
What is Stress?
The online information service published by the United States National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus.gov, defines stress as the “feeling of emotional and physical tension.” The same source adds, “It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.”
According to MedlinePlus.gov, stress is the body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. The site adds that stress can be positive if it happens in short bursts, such as when you have to meet a deadline or try to avoid danger. On the other hand, prolonged stress could be detrimental to your health.
Stress can be chronic, the more harmful type that develops over the long term, or acute, referring to the more common short-term stress.
Signs of Stress
MedicalNewsToday.com reports that when your body is under stress, it “produces larger quantities of the chemicals cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine,” triggering the following reactions:
- Increased blood pressure
- Amplified muscle preparedness
Causes of Stress
The American Stress Institute lists some common causes of stress:
- Job pressure: Related to tension linked to coworkers, bosses, or overworking.
- Money: Stress could be triggered by termination of employment, reduced earnings in retirement, or unexpected expenses.
- Health: Terminal or chronic illness or other health crises.
- Relationships: Divorce, death of a loved one, loneliness, or a misunderstanding between friends.
- Poor nutrition: Examples include drinking too much caffeine or eating unhealthy food with a lot of refined sugars or unhealthy fats.
- Media overload: Associated factors include television, radio, internet, email, and social networking.
- Sleep deprivation: This leads to other challenges like poor performance at work or school that could trigger stress.
How Does Exercise Relieve Stress?
When it comes to stress, the good news is that you can relieve it. One way to decrease stress is by participating in some form of exercise.
The nonprofit academic medical center focused on integrated health care, education, and research, Mayo Clinic, supports the idea that “Exercise in almost any form can act as a stress reliever.” It adds, “Being active can boost your feel-good endorphins and distract you from daily worries.”
The Mayo Clinic lists a few ways in which exercise helps relieve stress:
- It increases the release of the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, known as endorphins.
- By mimicking the effects of stress and helping your body deal with stress.
- Its meditating effect comes from the fact that exercise allows you to focus on your body’s movements.
- It boosts your confidence and improves your mood as you start to have a good relationship with your body.
- It helps you sleep better, ensuring that you have the energy to meet life’s demands.
The Connection between Nature and Well Being
Apart from exercise, another way of releasing stress is spending time in nature. This is a view supported by the American Heart Foundation, which proposes, “Spending time in nature can help relieve stress and anxiety, improve your mood, and boost feelings of happiness and wellbeing.”
If you look at what spending time in nature involves, it’s easy to see why it can relieve stress. For instance, spending time in nature allows you to get free exercise, boost your Vitamin D levels (which is good for healthy bones, teeth, and muscle), and lets you meet people.
The idea that spending time in nature can help you reduce stress is also supported by the South University’s counseling and psychology department’s Dr. Susanne Preston, a clinical mental health counselor.
Preston says, “Research has shown that spending time in nature has been associated with decreased levels of mental illness, with the strongest links to reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, in addition to increased self-esteem.”
How Surfing Affects Mental Wellbeing
Now that we have shown how exercise and nature can help you reduce stress, let’s look at how surfing, as a form of exercise and an opportunity to spend time in nature, could be the cure for stress.
Frontiers for Young Minds is a journal focused on connecting kids to science experts and scientific information. In an article entitled “How Surfing Could be a Treatment for Mental Illness,” the journal focuses on “three areas that highlight important elements of surfing that make it a good activity for making beneficial changes in the brain.”
Facilitates an Interaction with Nature
We have already noted how interacting with nature has stress-relieving benefits. According to Frontiers for Young Minds, “Spending time in nature seems to lower stress levels, help the prefrontal cortex to focus, and lead to lower levels of mental fatigue. These effects are even greater if the physical activity is in the presence of water.”
The effects of interacting with nature through surfing have been recognized by the United Kingdom National Health Services (NHS), which funds The Wave Projects program. This initiative uses surfing as a form of therapy.
Ireland’s national public service media, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), reports that the surf therapy facilitated by The Wave Projects is so effective that doctors are now prescribing it for patients suffering from stress.
The YouTube channel SurferToday has produced a video explaining how surfing improves mental health. Check it out below:
High-Intensity Physical Activity
Whether you are carrying the surfboard into the water, setting yourself up to confront and ride the waves, or keeping your balance in rough seas, surfing is a demanding physical activity. We have already noted the benefits of physical activity.
Balancing Risk and Reward
The physical and mental activities involved in surfing are pretty demanding. However, it is the demanding nature of surfing that makes surfers want to get into the water. Their ability to conquer these challenging environments brings the feel-good effect.
The Frontiers for Young Minds notes that “scientists know that those moments of feeling good involve activity in the reward pathways of the brain, including those in the prefrontal cortex.” The same source adds, “A chemical in the brain called dopamine plays a role in feeling good.”
Frontiers for Young Minds concludes, “Surfers report the good feeling they get when catching a wave, and this feeling may help with managing their mental health so that they have lower levels of depression and anxiety than the general population.”
Other Health Benefits of Surfing
Dealing with stress and other mental health challenges should be viewed from a holistic angle (the belief that parts of human health are interconnected). Therefore, it is vital to look at how surfing affects not only mental health but also the individual’s overall health.
The Victoria State Government’s (Australia) Better Health Channel notes that paddling improves cardiovascular fitness, which keeps conditions like high blood pressure at bay. The same source also says that paddling strengthens muscles.
Having a stronger body will allow you to have the energy to live a fuller life, exercise, and spend time in nature. All these could have stress-reducing benefits.
How to Make Surfing and Stress Relief Work for You
It’s all great to know that surfing can help me deal with my stress, but how do I make surfing and stress relief work for me?
Repeller.com, a website that covers style, fashion, and shopping, tells the stories of people who use surfing to take their stress away every day.
One of the lessons we can learn from Repeller.com is that it can be challenging to find time to surf regularly when you have a family. The website cites the story of how Brandon Holley, a 50-year-old surfer, finds the time to surf while also being a single mom to a 9-year-old.
Holley says that she uses her surfing time to connect with her kid, so they surf together.
Jee Mee Kim, a principal for an economic development and real estate consulting firm, says that to be able to surf her stress away, she had to move closer to the ocean.
Kit Keenan is an 18-year-old surfer who says, “Not only has surfing become a meditative outlet for me growing up, but it has also become a family bond.” She also advises family members to make time to surf together.
From these stories, it’s clear that to make surfing’s stress relief benefits work for you, you need to find a way to make the time, have the right surfboard, and, if you can, move closer to the ocean. This could do wonders for both your mental and physical health.