January 11, 2022
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Illustration by Brittany England
After years of living with generalized anxiety disorder and depressive episodes, I found peace in the ocean.
As usual, it was a cloudless and bright June morning on the west side of Oahu. I carried my white mini longboard under my arm, jumped into the cool ocean water, and paddled out to the break. I spent the next hour staring into the horizon, watching the water swell up, turning around, and paddling fast to catch the wave before it broke.
Once I felt my board moving out of my control, I pushed on my hands and popped up onto my feet. I relished gliding down the wave until I fell off into the water. I climbed onto my board and repeated it all over again.
That morning I felt so present that I nearly forgot I was going through a breakup. My mind was focused only on the weightlessness of surfing. Each ride gave me a rush that I chased after in the next wave.
The endorphin high lasted for the rest of the day, as I replayed my best rides. It truly felt like the ocean washed away my sadness, at least for a bit.
In the company of a few friends, I’ve been teaching myself to surf for the last 2 years. It started during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to get outside and be active during lockdown. At one point in 2020, hikes and beaches in Hawaii were closed. You weren’t allowed to sit or lie down on the sand, though you could be in the water.
It started off as a hobby I had always wanted to try. I had no idea surfing would have such a positive impact on my mental health.
As a young adult, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and also commonly experienced depressive episodes. I had trouble coping with unpleasant emotions and struggled with letting go of anxious thoughts. I easily spiraled over triggers dealing with work, dating, and friendships.
For the past few years, I was regularly seeing a therapist and, after a few trial-and-errors, was also taking daily anti-anxiety medication. While these played an important role in supporting my mental health, my anxiety was still exhausting. Getting myself out of a negative mood often felt impossible.
Being on the water forces me to be present in the moment, or else I risk wiping out.
Since buying my first board in mid-2019, surfing has become a pivotal outlet for these emotions and anxious thoughts. Whenever I’m sad, frustrated, or anxious, or I feel stressed about work or relationships (like that previously mentioned breakup), I grab my board and paddle out.
Being on the water forces me to be present in the moment, or else I risk wiping out. The rush of endorphins from physical activity and being outside is hard to beat, too. Whenever I come back, even if it wasn’t a great session, I feel calmer and happier.
On the surface level, being out in nature is healing, especially the beach. I’m lucky to live in Hawaii, where I can access warm weather and ocean water nearly year-round, and I’ve always found refuge in going to the beach.
Research from 2010 shows that even just the sight of the ocean can be therapeutic. For me, it’s all the sensations of the beach, from immersing yourself in the refreshing salt water to being embraced by the warm sun.
A small 2019 study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that contact with nature — even just 20 minutes — helps with stress reduction.
While surfing, I am actively connecting with the ocean, working in tandem with it. I am also passively connecting with nature, looking out onto the shimmering water and back onto the island landscape.
There are stunning views of Hawaii you can only see from out at sea. If you’ve ever surfed during sunset, you know what I mean.
Not to mention that exposure to vitamin D from the sun and the minerals in salt water offer physical benefits.
It’s not news that regular exercise can have a positive effect on your physical and mental health. Endorphins and other feel-good chemicals released during exercise have been found to help reduce depression, pain, and stress.
I used to do at-home workouts with a set of dumbbells and a yoga mat, but surfing feels different, and research backs that up.
A 2011 study found that surfers report significantly fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than the general population. Surfing is now my main form of exercise, and I’ll hit the waves at least three times a week.
In the long run, surfing has taught me valuable life lessons that I apply to life on land. Multiple factors that are completely out of my control — the tide, wind speed, wind direction, and swell — affect surf conditions. When I paddle out, I can only control my own reactions and go with the flow of the ocean.
The same ebb and flow is applicable to the rest of life. Some days, just like surfing, are easier than others, but you stay afloat and catch what you can. You can paddle hard for a wave and miss it, and all you can do is paddle for the next one.
This mindset is what surf therapy strives to achieve. A nascent form of mental health support, surf therapy focuses on the mental and physical health benefits of surfing.
A 2014 study of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) found that those who participated in surf therapy for 5 weeks reported “clinically meaningful improvement in PTSD symptom severity.” However, the study was small and had no control group.
Some days, just like surfing, are easier than others, but you stay afloat and catch what you can.
When you’re learning to surf, you’re also at the will of the ocean, so expect to wipe out and be knocked off your board — a lot. As a beginner, I often found myself caught in the white water during a set, when waves are breaking one after another. At first, I fought it, scrambling in the water, but that just wore me out faster.
Over time, I’ve learned to just relax and not fight the ocean’s power. Instead, I’ll relax and let the ocean move me until things calm down and I can surface and catch my breath, then I’ll climb right back on my board.
I’m not the only one who has learned about my own resilience from surfing.
A 2010 Australian study found that at-risk Aboriginal children who engaged in surfing “demonstrated increased self-esteem and a new enthusiasm for overcoming and mastering challenges.” The ups and downs of learning how to surf helped the children reframe approaching difficult tasks.
I never expected surfing to become such a critical pillar of support in my life, but I’m forever grateful. After 2 years of regular surfing, I feel stronger, both physically and mentally.
I recently bought my second longboard and continue to go out whenever I can, whether with my friends, partner, or only myself. After each surf session, I feel centered, relaxed, and ready to tackle whatever lies ahead.
Medically reviewed on January 11, 2022
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