The positive therapeutic qualities of sun, sand and surf are well known. Who doesn’t dream about escaping their stressful daily routine by retreating to a sun-soaked and sandy beach?
With this in mind, mental health experts have developed the concept of ‘Surf Therapy,’ which aims to harness the sea’s therapeutic qualities to help people overcome a range of problems, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among many others.
With the aim of enhancing physical, mental and psychological wellbeing, Surf Therapy takes a holistic approach to therapeutic treatment. Unlike many other treatment methods, it does not involve any medication, so there are no undesirable side-effects.
A relatively recent development, Surf Therapy has been particularly effective among veterans, who have used it to overcome depression, combat stress and PTSD, along with life-threatening conditions such as traumatic brain injuries.
A scientific study carried out at San Diego’s Naval Medical Center, which examined the effects of Surf Therapy on American active-duty military personnel, yielded surprising results.
It found that the immediate benefits of Surf Therapy included ‘significantly reduced depression/anxiety and increased positive affect.’ The same study went on to note that Surf Therapy also helped to alleviate symptoms of PTSD.
A 2018 article about the study, published in The Washington Post (‘Riding the Waves to Better Health’), quoted one retired army lieutenant-general as saying: ‘It’s peaceful, but it’s also an adrenaline rush. Surfing is great therapy for young guys and for old guys like me.’
Surf Therapy has proven effective in alleviating the effects of different types of trauma, including that caused by physical abuse (sexual or otherwise), abandonment, catastrophic illness or injury, or the loss of a loved one.
If left untreated, such trauma can manifest itself in a host of ways, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm and even suicidal behavior.
A Natural High
Along with PTSD, Surf Therapy has also shown itself to be highly effective in helping people combat, and ultimately defeat, problems related to addiction.
Because of the physical and mental effort involved in surfing, the body produces bursts of adrenalin and dopamine, both of which serve to create a ‘natural high’ that tends to offset the craving for drugs and/or alcohol.
Surf Therapy is also an excellent means of alleviating chronic insomnia. The physically demanding nature of the sport, along with exposure to sun and saltwater, leaves surfers exhausted, resulting in deeper, longer sleep and regularized sleeping patterns.
Other conditions that can be alleviated by Surf Therapy include autism, bipolar disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
An excellent form of low-impact exercise, surfing also contributes to physical fitness. It is estimated that a single hour of non-stop surfing can burn up to 240 calories on average.
It is an established scientific fact that physical exercise contributes to mental and psychological wellbeing by raising self-confidence and self-efficacy, improving cognitive concentration, and alleviating stress and anxiety.
And because surfing is a relatively low-impact sport, people of all ages can benefit from its therapeutic effects. What’s more, no previous surfing experience is required because qualified trainers are always on hand to assist.
Surf Therapy also promotes a sense of self-reliance, as surfers must learn how to fend for themselves and meet the challenges posed by the crashing waves all around them. Successfully mastering the ocean’s ebb and flow can lead to a sense of accomplishment and help overcome feelings of failure.
Although Surf Therapy can help people of all age groups, it is particularly attractive to young people, who tend to be less enthusiastic about other, less exciting forms of therapy treatment. The fact that it is considerably less expensive than other therapies only adds to its appeal.
But more than anything else, Surf Therapy’s primary draw is that it is incredibly fun (especially after you have caught your first wave), with most participants seeing it more as a recreational activity than as a form of therapy.
But Surf Therapy isn’t only about riding the waves. It also involves personal coaching by trained therapists, who help participants come to terms with the feelings evoked by their surfing experience.
Such feelings can include those of failure, disappointment or a loss of control; emotions often encountered in our everyday lives.
Following every surf session, therefore, trained counsellors are on hand to help participants come to terms with the emotions they are feeling and help them relate those feelings to their own personal situations.
At Surf Therapy Travel, we like to use the ‘Gestalt’ method of therapy, which is aimed at getting in touch with participants’ true selves and allowing them to connect with the people most important to them.
The powerful Gestalt method emphasizes the participant’s non-judgmental relationship with the therapist, also referred to as ‘mindfulness in dialogue.’
Cultivated through proven techniques, mindfulness is typically described as ‘the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.’
In this respect, surfing represents the ultimate activity for experiencing the ‘here and now.’ Considerably more laborious than it looks, surfing is, like life itself, both physically and mentally demanding.
It requires tremendous focus to balance oneself on a surfboard so as to successfully catch and ride a wave. This concentrated effort forces the surfer to commit themselves entirely to the present moment, thereby putting aside, at least temporarily, their personal anxieties, dilemmas and traumas.
If you’re not focused on the here and now, the merciless ocean can sweep you off your feet. But if you learn to confront your fears, represented by the crashing waves, you can overcome this sense of helplessness, which is a primary cause of depression and anxiety.
This ability to focus, to achieve mindfulness, can also be developed through passive activities, such as meditation, which likewise requires intense concentration.
In a 2019 article in the New York Times (‘Catching Waves for Wellbeing’), mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn was explicitly asked about the psychological, and spiritual, benefits of surfing.
‘The beauty of mindfulness is that you can bring it into anything, and then everything becomes your mindfulness teacher and contributes to waking you up fully,’ he was quoted as saying. ‘Surfing is no exception.’
Kabat-Zinn added: ‘When you are really present, the world (and the wave) can wake you up and bring you into the timeless present moment, even in the midst of complex, unpredictable, dynamical circumstances.’
The idea that surfing can have physical, mental and spiritual benefits isn’t just a bunch of New Age mumbo-jumbo. It’s actually been scientifically verified in a number of studies carried out by respected institutions.
For example, a study published in 2017 by Western Kentucky University’s International Journal of Exercise Science found that a single 30-minute surfing session resulted in ‘positive psychological effects.’
‘The present study adds to the small body of knowledge for surfing to be considered as a sport modality with the potential to significantly improve psychological factors…,’ the study found.
Based on experiments involving 107 adult volunteers, the same study concluded that there were, in fact, ‘psychological benefits associated with surfing.’
Another study published in 2018 by the UK’s International Journal of Disability, Development and Education led to similar findings. It concluded that ‘parents (of children with special needs) perceive Surf Therapy to positively impact their child physically, socially and behaviorally.’
Although surfing was first introduced to Western popular culture in the 1960s, it has been practiced by indigenous sea communities for centuries. It is first recorded among the pre-Incan civilizations of South America, who rode the waves on what they called ‘seahorses of straw.’
In the Polynesian Islands (which include Hawaii), surfing was such an integral part of the culture that tribal chiefs were generally chosen based on their ability to surf.
Ancient sea cultures held a deep respect for the unfathomable vastness of the ocean. Modern researchers, too, have frequently commented on the ‘awe’ one experiences in the presence of the deep blue sea.
This sense of awe is generally accompanied by profound psychological effects. Experiencing the enormity of the sea encourages us to see beyond our own narrow self-interest, which leads in turn to a greater sense of empathy with those around us.
Because of these obvious spiritual benefits, professional wave-riders, from the shores of California to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, have traditionally referred to the art of surfing as ‘Ocean Therapy.’
Surf Therapy Travel Retreats: Be Yourself
At Surf Therapy Travel, our overriding goal is to create a safe space for you, one in which you can undergo the healing process at your own pace.
With the support and guidance of our trained coaches and therapists, you can embark on the process of personal development, share your feelings with fellow participants, and, as we like to say, ‘Change your world one wave at a time!’
We are currently offering week-long retreats in Baleal, Portugal (available both with and without surfing lessons). We will soon provide similar retreats in the Netherlands.
You can book a private single room at the luxurious Shark’s Lodge (Solo Traveler package), a private double room (Intimate Travelers package), or a semi-private triple room (Get Together Traveler package).
Responses to our Surf Therapy retreats have been overwhelmingly positive, with many participants reporting noticeable changes in their overall wellbeing and outlook on life.
‘I never thought the sea would give me so much peace and joy. With Sabine from Surf Therapy Travel, I could completely be myself,’ Chantal, one recent retreat participant, said.
‘The different experiments on the ocean and the bodywork techniques on a Gestalt basis helped me raise my awareness,’ she added. ‘I now feel more at ease and at peace with myself. I am more self-compassionate and no longer experience anxiety.’
Our Surf Therapy retreats are designed for anyone over 18 years old who wants to work on their personal development. Previous surfing experience is not required.
All participants will be fully accommodated at the luxurious Shark’s Lodge, which is located in Portugal’s scenic Baleal Bay, approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the capital Lisbon.
The hotel is only a seven-minute walk from the beach, where Surf Therapy sessions are held starting at 7 am. Here, participants take part in morning exercises to relieve any tension before the surfing begins.
Exercises include various therapeutic interventions, such as connective breath-work techniques, energetic work, tapping and psoas shaking. This is followed by a standard European breakfast consisting of eggs, meat, bread, various spreads, yoghurt, muesli, fruit, coffee, tea and juice.
At 9:30 am, participants will take to the waves following a mindful sharing session. Our surfing coaches, trained in both mental and physical health, will always be at hand to provide you with any assistance you need.
Water temperatures vary from about 12°C (54°F) in winter to a maximum of 19°C (66°F) in summer, so all participants must wear a wetsuit, which we will provide.
After two hours of surf time, participants gather on the beach for another mindful sharing session to discuss their experiences, thoughts and feelings, both with our trained counsellors and with each other.
At 1 pm, everyone will enjoy a well-deserved lunch, along with some free time, before reconvening at 3 pm for another round of therapeutic intervention. This continues until 6:30 pm when dinner is served. (Lunches and dinners generally consist of tasty fusion-cooked meals and sandwiches.)
Following dinner, from 8 pm to 9 pm, participants take part in an evening meditation and, if they want to, fun experimental exercises. If you need any additional free time, this can be easily arranged.
All meals are included at the retreat, except for dinner on the final night when participants and instructors will enjoy a night out on the town.
Our week-long retreat packages include seven nights at Shark’s Lodge; five optional surfing lessons (available at all levels); therapeutic and bodywork activities by trained coaches; all breakfasts, lunches and dinners (except dinner on the final night); two yoga sessions; and insurance covering the surfing lessons.
Retreat packages do not include transportation to Portugal, transportation to and from the airport in Lisbon (although we can help you with this), and travel insurance.
For further details, please refer to the FAQ section of our website. And for updates on future Surf Therapy Travel retreats, you can subscribe to our free newsletter from the website’s main page.
Surf Therapy Travel Offers Week-Long Retreats in Portugal
Are you suffering from stress, depression, anxiety, addiction, or PTSD? Surf Therapy Travel’s week-long retreats in Portugal will help you get over it.