The world is changing and with it so is your everyday, recreational surfer. Though what we do remains the same, how we feel about it has certainly expanded since I was a wave-starved east coast grommet. In those days, performance was the mantra and woe betide anyone who sought to challenge the status quo, by perhaps suggesting surfing might be fun or indeed anything else at all. But if we look inwards and ignore the external noise, what does surfing do to us as individual human beings?
I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the sea without other people around – such was the bonus of being a “coldwater” surfer before “coldwater surfing” was a thing. In an environment where you are the only human being hooked up to the great planetary rhythm of the ocean, it’s easy to mentally explore why we keep coming back to it and why it feels good. As understanding of mental health problems increases, talking about them is slowly becoming destigmatised. But the recognition of surfing as a tool to genuinely help people cope with a very confusing home, our planet, is not yet fully acknowledged. We need these opportunities: levels of anxiety and depression among young people are soaring.
As well as surfing a lot of (admittedly pretty bad) uncrowded waves as a young person, I spent a lot of time around mental illness in my immediate family. This wasn’t your typical anxiety or feeling a bit bleak, but severe manic depression that changed my life forever. With the benefit of hindsight, however, I escaped a pretty wretched home situation in the water. As a teenager, much like a million other awkward grommets, the only place I wanted to be was surfing. This was at a time when mental illness was very hard to talk about, so I completely buried it and told nobody, seeking to get away from my past life and invent myself a new one where my secrets were safe. However, over time I came to understand that surfing isn’t an escape at all. Surfing is a bridge and this is what makes it a valuable tool in helping people to overcome whatever they are destined to deal with on land, if they are open to it. That openness is key – surfing is exactly what we make of it.
There is no doubt that the ocean feels really good. You could say of this entire article – we surf because it is fun – and leave it at that. But that would understate vast healing potential. There are physical reasons for this of course. We came out of the water. Our bodies are overwhelmingly fluid, the chemical composition of our blood mirroring that of seawater. Of course inhabiting this other realm on the edge of the “real world” feels right to us. That the ocean has therapeutic mental benefits is also undeniable.
In his complex study of the topic, Blue Mind, Wallace J Nichols examines how water makes you “happier, more connected and better at what you do.” Nichols proposes that oceans and rivers are “a wellspring of happiness and relaxation, sociality and romance, peace and freedom, play and creativity, learning and memory, innovation and insight, elation and nostalgia, confidence and solitude, wonder and awe, empathy and compassion, reverence and beauty — and help manage trauma, anxiety, sleep, autism, addiction, fitness, attention/focus, stress, grief, PTSD, build personal resilience, and much more.”
Blue Mind is part of a huge wealth of scientific research into what is termed ‘blue space.’ At the forefront of contemporary research is surfer Easkey Britton, who co-authored a 2018 review of ‘blue space interventions for health and wellbeing.’ The title of the paper, Blue Care, refers to “blue space interventions (BSI), pre-designed activities or programmes (typically physical) in a natural water setting, targeting individuals to manage illness, promote or restore health and/or wellbeing for that group.” The review included 33 studies from around the globe, involving 2031 participants, some of whom were involved in surf therapy. The review concluded that activities in blue space resulted in “significant positive effects for health, especially psycho-social wellbeing benefits.” It also acknowledged that much more investment and research into BSIs needs to be conducted.
As someone that has never taken part in an active ‘blue health’ programme or a designed intervention, I can only describe my personal experience. To me, water has the capacity to strip back the layers that we build up during our terrestrial lives. In the water, despite all the movement, we find moments of stillness. Outside of the structures and constraints that impede us on land, the water is a shared place beyond ownership. I see surfing or indeed any interaction with the water as connective tissue – it binds us with other elements, other beings and other humans in a way that few practices can match. It also strengthens and reinforces our identity, security and health. In this light, the idea of surfing as a sport just feels absurd. And the idea that we as surfers experience mental health benefits becomes easier to talk about, enjoy and invite others to join.
If this article resonated with you, join us on the 16th August in St Agnes for ‘Local Hero’- an exhibition by award-winning photographer Jon Mackenzie that challenges the stigma around masculinity and mental health. Find out more and get your free ticket here.