In partnership with Oceanographic Magazine, this year we will be bringing you some of the best stories from the magazine, to bring different perspectives to our community of sea lovers.
Fresh from Issue 13, Finisterre Ambassador Easkey Britton looks at the tangible health benefits and growing body of evidence to support surf therapy as an effective means of treatment for a range of conditions.
Surfing was, and still is, my favourite way to express myself in the world, and to make sense of my place in it. All through history the sea has held a place of power in our collective imagination. We might fear it, but we’ve always been drawn to it, or when away from it, left with a feeling of longing. Environmentalist Rachel Carson argued in 1950 in her stunning account of our relationship with the ocean, The Sea Around Us, that we are all tied to our origins in the ancient sea. I grew up in a family of surfers on the west coast of Ireland where surfing was a celebrated part of life. I’ve felt it’s power to hold us together as a family through all kinds of ups and downs, and personally how it has held and healed me at various stages of my life.
Studying the links between the ocean and human health, it came as little surprise to find that there is a surge in research on the benefits of nature connection, especially ‘blue space’ – the sea and other water environments – on our health and wellbeing. Surfing is emerging as one of the most rapidly growing ‘blue care’ activities, an alternative and complimentary therapeutic intervention that taps into the power of the sea and surf to heal. There are Surf therapy organisations on every continent in the world offering programmes for a diversity of vulnerable and minority groups.
This is crucial at a time when we are in the midst of a global health crisis with medicalised interventions and the associated high rates of prescription drug use to treat depression, stress, anxiety and mood-related disorders on the rise, especially for children. This is at a time when children are spending less time than ever before outdoors and suffering from what Richard Louv calls Nature Deficit Disorder.
"The young surfers' accounts revealed shifts in their sense of identity, self awareness and connection to nature, improving confidence, interpersonal and communication skills."
Scientific studies are catching up with what I’ve intuitively known and felt my whole life, the power of the sea to heal. The findings in these studies show how surf therapy involves active engagement and immersion in the sea that can create a sense of respite from everyday and acquired anxieties and disabilities and promote mental health outcomes. The health benefits of surf therapy are linked to the fluid and dynamic nature of surfing and the sea. The multi-sensory nature of surfing is linked with improved health, activating all our sensory systems at a cellular level and enhancing ‘neuroplasticity’ - helping the brain’s ability to become more agile and adaptive. The added challenge and unpredictability associated with surfing also builds resilience, helping us better cope with stress. Learning to surf in a group context can enhance a sense of belonging and identity through shared experiences in the surf. For amputees and those with spinal chord injuries, surfing can reduce dependency on opioid medication and improve balance and mobility. Those with Cystic Fibrosis found they could breathe more easily a!er surfing, the saltwater linked with fewer pulmonary flare-ups.
Surfing is an embodied way of interacting and experiencing the natural world, something we are growing increasingly separated from. From a research perspective, the challenge is how to measure or capture health and wellbeing outcomes in such a complex, fluid, and dynamic environment like the surf so we can better communicate the benefits to health professionals and policy makers. To understand in greater depth, the richness of these experiences of immersion in the sea that take us away from our worries on land, we also need more creative and participatory methods of evaluation.
As part of my research, I worked with a surf therapy non-profit in Ireland, Liquid Therapy, and a group of young surfers with autism to better understand their experiences. Using a technique called Body Mapping, we explored their feelings and emotional wellbeing. Body Mapping engages the senses and draws on similar methods used in art and dance therapy as well as mindfulness-based practice. It encourages active and playful participation in the research with the aid of objects, symbols, colours and sensations. It also incorporates reflection and storytelling that provides the means to creatively explore the relationships between personal, social and natural worlds.
Using a creative and embodied approach like Body Mapping created a space for different forms of expression, supporting wider forms of engagement and communication that didn’t rely solely on traditional forms (written/verbal) that could exclude or alienate. The young surfers’ accounts revealed shifts in their sense of identity, self-awareness and connection to nature, improving confidence, interpersonal and communication skills for those with low self-esteem.
Surf Therapy provides a lens to see, understand and experience the sea as healing, restorative and health-enabling. It offers potential for novel health care interventions and health promotion, especially at a time of heightened psychological distress globally, that will continue after the pandemic is over. To tap into and realise the potential of surf therapy in a fair, just and inclusive way we need to restore the ocean as a safe and healthy space for all.