Should You Swap Your Therapy Couch For a Surfboard?

“I believe in the combination of talking and outdoor physical activity,” says therapist and surfer Liselotte Oyen.
people doing a surf therapy session at the beach
Photo: Ine Debo

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

Surfing makes people happy - some can’t live without it. Among them is Liselotte Oyen, 41, who’s a surfer, therapist and lecturer of applied psychology studies at the VIVES University in Courtrai, Belgium. 

Surfing isn’t exactly popular in Belgium – Oyen tried the sport for the first time in Miami, when she was 24. But four years later, she realised she could take her hobby to the Belgian coast, too. For the past year, Oyen has been organising surf therapy sessions in the water, in the small town of Wenduine.


We met her at a beach bar to talk about the therapeutic benefits of surfing.

People sitting on a surfboard having a conversation in a circle on the beach.

Photo: Ine Debo

VICE: How did you discover surf therapy?
Liselotte Oyen:
I was already studying psychology when I started surfing, and I immediately noticed the effect it had on me. I said to myself, “I bet this could help other people.”

What does a session look like?
In individual sessions, we often start by surfing, then we talk about our experience in the sea, which is a good metaphor for life as a whole. Group sessions vary - my most recent group wanted to focus on the surfing part, so the moments of reflection were shorter. Sometimes, we talk during the surf sessions - when someone comes out of the water, for example. I also give people reflection exercises to do at home.

What’s the added value of doing something like this as a group?
I do preliminary interviews with people to see if a group session is a good fit for them. Ultimately, a lot of people are looking for connection. We encourage each other a lot, and participants learn from each other.

We went kayaking once because there weren’t enough waves. We talked a lot on the way and one of the kayaks got a leak, so we repaired it together - that really brought us together.

surf therapy - people sitting on the beach and talking to each other

Photo: Ine Debo

Do people have to know how to surf to do a session?
No, you just have to know how to swim - you learn how to surf during therapy. It’s also a good way to face failure and learn how to deal with setbacks. That part isn’t so different from an ordinary surfing class, but in this case, it’s more about personal development than surfing.

Does science recognise and support surf therapy?
There have been several impact assessments over the past ten years, but more research needs to be done. Because of my psychology training, scientific proof is really important to me: It provides markers of effectiveness, which are crucial when you want to talk about the benefits of surf therapy.


In the UK, doctors are already prescribing surf sessions. Surf culture in England is much bigger, so surf therapy is on the rise there - and in the Netherlands, too. Outdoor therapy has become more popular since COVID, which is helping.

Are you in touch with surf therapists in other countries?
Yes, it’s so inspiring to see how other organisations approach the subject. In Puerto Rico, there’s an organisation that works with kids on the autism spectrum. They train parents on how to watch their kids while they surf, so they can go out to the sea together on the weekends.

What makes surf therapy different from any other outdoor therapy session?
I believe in the combination of talking and outdoor physical activity - surfing is a healing practice. By learning how to surf, the participants acquire a new skill and more self-confidence. It makes them more trusting and therefore more inclined to share things with a group. Catching your first wave is a big moment, but even daring to jump into the water gives some people the confidence they need.

Besides, you’re very much in the present when you surf: You paddle, turn, jump and keep track of the sea, which requires full focus. When you’re being that active, you can’t worry at the same time.

Surfing stimulates the release of happiness hormones. It’s really liberating for people who suffer from anxiety or negative emotions to discover that they can have fun again.

Scroll down for more pictures:

People standing on the beach and talking to each other during a surf lesson.

Photo: Ine Debo

A woman holding her surfboard and entering in the water.

Liselotte Oyen. Photo: Ine Debo

A woman standing on the beach and looking at the sea.

Liselotte Oyen. Photo: Ine Debo