More and more, surfing, yoga and walks in nature are being posited as the answer to alleviating our mental health problems, but are they really the magic fix so many claim?
As lovers of surfing and other nature-based pastimes, we all know how much better a stint of outdoor activity makes us feel. However, we don’t have to rely on anecdotal evidence to prove it. It’s a scientific fact that exercise has a positive impact on our health. It increases the happy chemicals in our brain- serotonin and dopamine- and makes us feel better. These chemicals also help us to achieve a brain state where we’re more keen to take on challenges we find frightening. This, in turn, aids us in regulating the fight or flight mechanism in our brains, enabling us to manage stress better.
In today’s society, most of us live in total comfort; if we feel cold, we put the heating on, if we feel hungry, we pop to the shops. It’s easy to forget that for much of our evolution, we lived in an acutely more stressful world. Our hunter-gather ancestors were surrounded by dangers, locked in a constant fight for survival with each other and the natural world around us.
As a result, our brain developed a fight or flight response, which was activated in moments when our lives were threatened. Despite the vast change in circumstances, modern brains still default to this response when faced with stressful situations. And since most of us don’t regularly experience the sort of life or death situations our ancestors were accustomed to, our tolerance levels to extreme stress have lowered. This, in turn, has lead us to become fearful of the smaller worries in life brought on by social situations, financial difficulties or relationship problems.
For surfers in colder climes, where swells are generated by winter storms, we regularly head out in extreme weather conditions and freezing temperatures. However, the more time we spend in such conditions, the more our bodies learn to tolerate them. This indirectly teaches our brains how to manage stressful situations better and even increases our pain thresholds.
Surfing also makes us face our fears and head out in waves that frighten us. Whether that’s 2ft or 20ft isn’t important, pushing through that scared feeling helps surfers learn to function under stress and manage and control those feelings.
Surviving and overcoming these moments also activates the brain’s reward system, making us feel good and making those everyday worries seem less significant.
So do we need medication at all? In some cases, absolutely. Serious mental illness requires medication, it keeps people alive. There are plenty of surfers and active people who still suffer from crippling mental illness, where the dopamine hit delivered by the activity is not sufficient to overcome the darkness.
The problem with prescribing medication to all patients experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression is that this does not get to the root cause of why people are experiencing difficulties. There is not one clinical studies that shows that depression is due to a lack of serotonin in the brain, yet antidepressants (or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors as they are better known in the medical world) are the go-to for most GPs when somebody goes to them feeling stressed.
Having worked in mental health for 12 years, in my clinical experience most people’s anxiety and depression is due to being overwhelmed with the stresses of everyday life. In my experience, people can cope surprisingly well with one big life stress, but we do not cope well with many smaller ones. For example, we cope relatively well with a bereavement but when life gets overwhelming in multiple ways; work is stressful, relationships break down, we eat unhealthily, we’re not getting enough sleep, we’re too busy to do the things we love etc., that’s when we struggle.
No one element alone, whether it be mediation, sport or therapy are enough to keep us well, it’s actually a combination of all of them that’s key. This is where lifestyle medicine comes into play, Lifestyle medicine is a form of medicine dealing with research, prevention and treatment of disorders caused by lifestyle factors such as nutrition, poor sleep, physical inactivity and chronic stress. I founded Thera-Sea to educate people on the importance of every aspect of lifestyle medicine so people can understand what they need to keep well. We combine surfing, canoeing, wild swimming and bushcraft with nutritional meals and educational workshops so that when you go home, you can keep well.