“Surfing is like the mafia. Once you’re inside, there’s no way out.” – Kelly Slater
If you have never surfed before but are considering taking a surf lesson, you may have already figured out that there is more to it than just riding waves.
When you think about it, surfing is kind of totally crazy and irrational – why the hell do people do it?
The water can be freezing, some surfers get up before the sun to go surfing, not to mention they are repeatedly, willingly, purposefully playing in one of the most perilous playgrounds mother earth has to provide. What in the world?
So why? What keeps surfers coming back for more?
This article gets into the newly established science of surfing and addiction.
Before we begin, it is important to acknowledge that real addiction to drugs and alcohol is not something to take lightly. It is serious hardship and struggles for those afflicted with it.
We can get addicted to practically anything – coffee, sugar, Facebook, stress, gambling, etc. Studies have shown that even Cheetohs are addictive. Cheetohs! Such a bummer…
The aim here is to enlighten everyone on how surfing changes the brain to mimic that of addiction, and how it can possibly be an avenue to recovery for those who are truly suffering from serious addictions.
Whether you yourself have struggled with addiction problems or whether you have family or friends that are dealing with it, this piece will hopefully be a much-needed light at the end of the tunnel.
The more researchers learn about the process of how the brain becomes addicted to something, the more we are able to understand how to intentionally disrupt the addictive tendencies that do not serve us well in life.
If addiction is partly driven by chasing dopamine, the feel-good chemical in the brain, then perhaps replacing the experience that follows a craving could help rewire the brain to think differently – to want differently.
Surfing in the ocean reminds us that we all live on this planet together. We all understand the stress and struggle of trying to make something of ourselves in a world that seems to be getting crazier and crazier.
Sooner or later as we grow up, we realize that the struggles of life never go away. Sometimes, that makes it hard to feel good naturally.
Surfing is one of those things that if you force yourself to show up, you will feel good afterwards – all naturally. In other words, all you need is time in the ocean to feel content in life.
Why is it that surfing can be so euphoric?
Surfing gives us unexpected pleasure. We never know when we’re paddling out what kind of a session it’s going to be.
You may not get to ride that many waves or you may get to ride the best wave you have ever ridden in your entire life.
Overtime, this memorized feeling of highly elevated levels of pleasure from getting that surprise wave or pulling of that sweet cutback for the first time does wonders to a surfer’s brain.
Isn’t addiction bad?
If you have some experience with surfing, you have enjoyed it, and are now here reading this blog on HOKALI (where, presumably, you have come to book a private one-on-one lesson with one of our excellent surf coaches – a brilliant idea, my friend), it seems highly probable that you are… you may want to sit for this… that you are starting to become a surf addict.
Phew. Ok, you can stand now.
Drugs are bad, 100% agreed, and addiction is nothing to make light of. But addiction, as we have been taught to believe, doesnʻt always have to be negative.
But what about surfing? Does surfing fall into the category of habitual behavior that you start to lose control over and even start to crave? Hell yes it does.
Feeling the overwhelming desire to get in the water for a surf when we are having a bad day, a good day, or when we are busy at work but see a perfect swell coming to our favorite spot. What else is it besides an absolutely lovely addiction?
The thing about being addicted to surfing is that you are not in control of having the same experience each time you try to chase after that awesome rush you got the last time you paddled out.
While the intense joy you feel from dropping in on a big wave for the first time makes you hungry for more, you could show up the next day to find a completely different set of conditions – i.e., no fix for you today.
Are you addicted to surfing?
Do you feel weird when it’s been too long in between sessions? Maybe a little moody when you know there’s good surf but life’s obligations are keeping you home?
Guess what? There’s nothing wrong with this.
We can say this with certainty because of all the research that has been done on the mental health benefits of surfing.
When we feel a deep-rooted need for surf, to feel the sun on our backs and our hands pulling us through the swell, it can actually be a really helpful sign from within telling you that you need a little less stress from the material world we live in, and a little more connection with a force greater than you.
Maybe it’s an escapism thing. But if it is, who cares? Surfing is awesome. It makes you feel great. It puts life into perspective.
Just ask Bethany Hamilton. If Bethany is still surfing even after what happened to her when she was a kid on Kauai, that’s got to mean something powerful is at work here – a power that seeks to heal.
How do surfers get addicted to surfing?
We do not tend to forget the experiences in life that cause us to feel highly elevated levels of dopamine, the feel good chemical in the brain.
People can experience a dopamine rush for a wide variety of things – essentially, it is released whenever you feel a sense of reward and pleasure from your circumstances.
The experiences that cause a massive dopamine rush, if repeated over and over again for a long enough period of time, can become addictive. We are talking about literally anything that you desire because it makes you feel happy.
The experience of feeling addicted to surfing causes us to think obsessively about when that next reward of fun waves will be delivered.
The endorphins, adrenaline, and serotonin boosts we receive from surfing, plus the additional unexpected surprise of catching a super fun wave we were not expecting leaves surfers feeling fulfilled, content, and serene.
Keep surfing for long enough and your brain starts to remember that every time you go surfing, it really likes the during and after effects (all that joy and satisfaction).
Now your brain starts anticipating this dopamine reaction before you even get to the beach. Maybe you just got to work in the morning and already are looking at the surf forecast to see if today is a day where you should leave the office early to make it in time for a sunset surf.
Ain’t no doubt about it – the love of surfriding hooks us fast and makes us desire coming back for more.
Effortless reward v. reward that took hard effort
Okay, let’s get real here. Surfing makes your brain fire in unexplainable ways. What’s amazing about this is that there is no downside to it. It truly makes you feel better in the water, after you’re home, and even when you’re falling asleep at night. Some may even argue that it’s a medicine-like activity and provides healing properties.
With surfing, after you’re done, you’re left feeling completely content. Our brain is less likely to send signals of craving anything (besides a sandwich) because of how naturally content it is.
What else is like this in the whole world?
It’s ridiculous how lovely it is to be a surf addict. More, please.
Surf therapy has been incorporated into many rehab programs for those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. Researchers have found that the thrill people get from catching waves works similar to the high people get from consuming addictive substances.
That means that learning how to surf can help the brain replace the urge to use drugs by rewiring the brain for a different high – a surferʻs high. Oh yeah. That all-natural good stuff. Thank you, mother nature.
For beginners who have dabbled with surfing before but are interested in becoming a full-blown surf addict, HOKALI can help connect you to a professional surf coach who will give you one-on-one instruction and personalized feedback that will help you take your skills to the next level.
Spreading Awareness of the Benefits of Surf Therapy
“The night is always darkest before the dawn.” – Batman
There are loads of mental health issues that research has proven to be mitigated by surfing alone.
If you or anyone you know struggles with substance abuse, it is a good idea to read the studies on how a regular surfing regime can be a natural method of detoxing or withdrawing from both pharmaceutical drugs and recreational drugs.
HOKALI lets you access a community of fellow surf addicts – trained coaches who are experts in helping beginners improve their skills.
Warning: HOKALI surf lessons may lead to surf addiction. If you experience the urge to surf soon after your first lesson, please book a second one.