It’s no secret that surfers are some of the happiest people in the world, therefore, can surfing improve mental health for these surfers?
If you don’t believe me, next time you’re at the beach take a look around – how many irritable, uptight surfers do you see?
Compare that to how many surfers you see with big, beaming smiles or calm, tranquil looks on their faces.
It’s usually this observation that gets noticed first by those who have never surfed before or are new to surfing, and it leads to a common line of questions:
Why are surfers so happy?
What does surfing do to a surfer’s brain?
Is there something in the water?
And finally – can surfing improve mental health?
Why are surfers so happy?
Short answer – because they can surf and because surfing is the quintessence of fun.
Science has linked spending time in the ocean with psychological and emotional wellbeing. In a study comparing the mental health effects of surf therapy to hike therapy, surfing was found to improve people’s mood levels better than hiking.
There is also a mind-body aspect to surfing. Surfing is a highly demanding physical and mental sport.
The feeling of being one with the ocean, at the mercy of mother nature’s most awesome energy source, allows your senses to disconnect with your body and become part of a flow state.
The result of being in flow is feeling a state of calm contentedness.
There is also a physiological effect on the body from surfing. This explains that surfing can improve mental health for these surfers
Surfers experience a rush of adrenaline and endorphins once they stand up on a wave. These feel-good hormones cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, making you feel very, very alive (hence, the beaming smiles) and make you want to keep paddling out for more.
What does surfing do to your brain?
Your body releases a rush of neurochemicals (a cocktail of adrenaline, serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine) that make you experience an intense feeling of reward and pleasure.
It’s the brain’s way of rewarding the body’s hard effort. This surf-induced feeling of euphoria, also known as a “surfer’s high”, is likely why so many beginner surfers become lifetime surfers. It’s a feeling you can’t get anywhere else. Showing that asking can surfing improve mental health? is a valid question with a positive response of yes!
The neurochemicals responsible for giving surfer’s that natural high and feeling of inner wellbeing are the same neurochemicals that are stimulated by intense physical exercise and training.
These are the four key ingredients:
- Adrenaline – when we experience fear or danger, our body releases adrenaline from the adrenal glands. This is commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline also causes our brain to release norepinephrine. These two hormones work in tandem to increase heart rate, breath rate, and blood flow when experiencing stress. It gives you the feeling of focused alertness that helps you manage stressful situations.
- Serotonin – a.k.a. the “happy chemical” – is a neurotransmitter that enhances our mood. Low levels of this serotonin chemical are associated with depression, insomnia, and anxiety. Higher levels of serotonin reduce stress, increases overall confidence, and improves sleep performance.
- Endorphins – these chemicals naturally neutralize the mind’s sensitivity to pain by masking feelings of physical discomfort and flooding the brain with a sense of euphoria. Once they hit you, they help you to keep charging.
- Dopamine – this neurotransmitter is responsible for regulating the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. Dopamine is released in incredibly high amounts as the result of an unexpected success, like dropping in on your first wave. It is also released when you start feeling excited in anticipation of an upcoming surf session.
The release of these neurochemicals while surfing also helps new blood vessels to grow. This improves sleep and overall mood while at the same time reducing levels of stress and anxiety – all accomplished 100% naturally.
Is there something in the water?
No, there’s no evidence of any potions or pollutants in the salt water linked with improving the mental health of surfers. But there is something in the air!
Besides the surfer’s high mentioned earlier, there is also something in the air above the ocean that when inhaled causes an increase in the serotonin levels in your brain, literally making you feel more energized, less stressed, and happier.
The spray of waves and pounding surf generates tens of thousands of negative ions – invisible molecules that are found in the air around waterfalls and breaking waves that are inhaled through the lungs and eventually end up in the blood stream.
Along with the increase in serotonin, negative ions tend to increase oxygen flow to the brain.
Research has found that people report feeling more lighthearted and less depressed after visiting environments with negative ions.
A study at Columbia University found that exposure to negative ions was as effective at relieving depression then pharmaceutical antidepressants, with the added benefit of having no negative side effects.
That means, not only is surfing one of the most fun activities on the planet, but you also get free air vitamins. Double win. Making surfing improve mental health!
Vitamin D, absorbed naturally through the skin when exposed to sunlight, has been shown to decrease symptoms of mental illness, including anxiety and depression.
Studies at Stanford University have shown that simply being outside in the sun, surfing or not, helps reduce brain activity linked to depression.
Is surfing good for mental health?
Short answer – yes.
It only takes 30 minutes of surfing to experience elevated levels of calm and a better overall mood. And that’s for anyone – not just those with mental illness.
Research has shown that surfers report significantly fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety as compared to the general population.
This is due to surfing’s hybrid of meditative and athletic activity – i.e., being in flow.
There have been numerous studies linking surfing with better mental health, especially for young adults, at-risk youth, and those suffering from trauma.
Surf therapy has also been found to help relieve symptoms of PTSD, depression, and schizophrenia.
After studying a group of young people with depression and schizophrenia, researchers in the UK found that the patients had made significant improvements in mood, better self-esteem, and had an easier time having fun after six weeks of learning how to surf.
For those suffering from PTSD, surf therapy has been found to improve overall mood, experience less suffering, and make it easier to talk about their trauma.
So, if you have been wanting to learn how to surf but have other stuff going on that’s stopping you, don’t wait any longer. Book a surf lesson with HOKALI and experience for yourself the mental benefits of surfing.
Check out this post to see how a surf movie can even motivate you!