The way Layne Beachley describes being in the ocean makes it sound like an almost religious experience.
“Diving in the ocean, I feel this sense of being cleansed from my head all the way down to my toes … almost like it cleanses my mind, my body, and my soul,” she says.
“It’s a place where I feel connected. It’s a place where I feel a sense of freedom.
“And as a self-confessed control freak, it’s a great place to surrender — because it’s a force way more powerful than me.”
Beachley, who won seven world surf titles before retiring from professional surfing in 2008, is widely regarded as one of the most successful female surfers in history.
But her time in the ocean has brought her more than professional success. Surfing, she says, has “at times saved [her] life”.
“In the mid ’90s I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, and it was a really challenging time because I didn’t want to acknowledge that I was sick,” she says.
“I ended up in a state of depression … I was thinking of ways to end my life on a daily basis.”
After seeking professional help, and making a “full mental, physical and emotional commitment to [her] health”, Beachley returned to surfing.
“It was the desire to go surfing again that kept me alive in the deepest, darkest moments of my life,” she says.
“Surfing gives me that healthy dose of perspective and balance in life. If I’m ever feeling overwhelmed, I know I’ve been away from the ocean for too long.”
Surfing as therapy
Beachley describes herself as a “huge supporter” of surfing as a form of therapy.
“Whatever’s happening on land, whatever’s going on on the beach, you don’t have to take it into the water with you,” she says.
“You go in there, you release yourself of the fears or anxieties or pressures of life … and it really brings you into your own state of being.”
Chief executive officer of the International Surf Therapy Organisation (ISTO) Kris Primacio says the idea of surf therapy is to embed therapeutic services in the “intrinsically motivating” activity of surfing.
“Each surf therapy program takes a structured approach to surfing to achieve a therapeutic benefit,” she says.
“The programs were developed to heal mental and physical illness through surfing, and in doing so, we enhance participants’ self-efficacy, and provide them with a sense of achievement.”
Surf therapy programs typically involve talk-based group therapy led by a mental health practitioner or informal peer support, followed by individual surf instruction.
“We’re not really reinventing the wheel — there’s creative art therapy, there’s equine therapy, there’s music therapy … we’re going to walk behind the path that they’ve carved out under experiential therapy,” Ms Primacio says.
Brisbane psychologist Christine Bagley-Jones says although surfing is not a formally recognised model of therapy, incorporating physical activity into mental health treatment can have immense benefits.
“Our physical health is very closely linked to our mental health, and vice versa. If we’re not feeling well mentally, it’s a good idea to start to explore how we’re looking after our bodies,” she says.
“Surf therapy looks very much at the physiological components of mental health.”
She adds that in addition to the benefits of physical activity, surfing — and other forms of exercise — can help to bring someone into the present moment, creating a sense of mindfulness.
“It allows us to be distracted from things that might be bothering us, to get a shift of perspective,” she says.
“With surf therapy, you have to be 100 per cent focused on the activity at hand … and while you’re fully focused on what you’re doing, you can’t be dwelling or engaging in anxious or depressive thinking.”
The ISTO work with 30 surf therapy organisations from around the world, including two from Australia. Surf therapy participants include young people who have experienced trauma, young people with autism, people with physical impairments, and people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Surfing is such a physical activity — it builds strength and balance — but it also builds confidence,” Ms Primacio says.
“We know that physical activity reduces our stress and can reduce our anxiety. Now research is being done around the globe … to see if people are receiving a therapeutic benefit from the ocean, and more specifically, surfing.”
Programs for PTSD
Last year, the United States Navy embarked on a $1 million research project to investigate the therapeutic potential of surfing for military personnel with PTSD, depression or sleep problems.
It follows research by Los-Angeles based occupational therapist Carly Rogers, who investigated the therapeutic benefits of surfing after experiencing the positive impact of it on her own mental health.
“The ocean has been a source of healing for me for so long, but it wasn’t until the death of my mother that I really realised the power of water in my own self-healing and recovery,” she says.
Dr Rogers designed a surf therapy program in 2004 (which has since been used as the basis of many programs) and undertook a small study with veterans experiencing symptoms of PTSD.
“Our participants attended five sessions, and we found they had decreased self-reported PTSD and depression symptoms,” she says.
“We also found there was an increase in their attendance rates … which really showed a preference for this treatment.”
Michael Burge, director of the Australian College of Trauma Treatment, says exercise has long been seen as an effective adjunct therapy “to reduce stress and trauma”.
When it comes to the treatment of PTSD, he says group activities like surfing can be particularly helpful because of their social aspects.
“Social isolation is well known to be a phenomenon of PTSD. People often feel like they’re odd and strange because of the flashbacks,” Mr Burge says.
“When they get involved in sporting activities, it helps reduce their isolation — there is a sense of comradeship with other surfers … and that can help dramatically.”
Surfing removes barriers to traditional therapy
Occupational therapist Joel Pilgrim is the chief executive officer of Waves of Wellness, which runs surf therapy programs for people experiencing mental health challenges.
He says incorporating surfing into clinical therapy can help to remove some of the barriers people face when accessing mental health support.
“There are a lot of people that shy away from mainstream services because they don’t want to be associated with the stigma,” he says.
“Surfing is a way to draw people out of those dark places and say, ‘Let’s talk about this … let’s learn to surf in the process … and we can all get through this together’.”
The Waves of Wellness workshops were inspired by Mr Pilgrim’s work with One Wave, a non-profit surf community that recently made headlines when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle joined the group at Bondi Beach in Sydney to raise awareness for mental health.
“The idea of being able to get outside and focus on your physical health is absolutely imperative to maintaining positive mental health,” Mr Pilgrim says.
“It’s not only the act of being around nature … it’s being able to switch off from the traumas that life can often throw at us.”
This piece by Olivia Willis was originally published on ‘ABC News‘, 27 November 2018.