Why Are Surfers So Chill? How Surfing Impacts Mental Health
Surfers and the science on depression, anxiety and wave-catching.
Photo: Jono Smit
Escalating house prices, zero job security, the threat of nuclear war? It's no wonder most millennials are more depressed and anxiety-ridden than any generation preceding them. For once, we wanted to hear from some who might actually be coping. And who better than surfers, the perennially chill subculture of shaka and stoke.
Examining the science, there's more than a vague aura of surfer chill to indicate surfing helps your mental health. In 2010, the UK's national health service conducted a six-week trial teaching patients suffering from depression and schizophrenia. They found significant improvements in mood following the programme, and particular leaps forward in self-esteem and ability to 'have fun'. The trial followed research by the University of Iowa students which found after just 30 minutes of surfing, people reported improved mood and calmness.
A 2014 study of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder found surfing activity improved mood, provided a sense of "release from suffering", and left participants more willing to discuss their experiences. And in 2011, a paper found surfers reported significantly fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than the general population. It concluded that surfers "describe the surfing sensation as a hybrid of meditative and athletic experience. Numerous empirical studies link both meditative experience and exercise with reduced incidence of depression and anxiety; this potentially suggests that surfers may endorse fewer symptoms of either disorder."
Since the science of stoke seems positive, we asked a bunch of surfers whether and why going out on the waves impacted their mental health. Here's what they had to say:
Have you found surfing helpful for your own mental health?
I can't claim depression or any debilitating mental illness, but I definitely found years ago I crept into a bit of a downward spiral that I found very, very hard to crawl out of. It was weird for me, being an extroverted person I don't really give off that vibe and really nothing was going wrong in my life to bring it on. Surfing was an avenue for me to remove myself from those certain situations and spend quality time with quality people in my life and try to level out my spinning thoughts, doubts/anxieties. The act of removing yourself from your normal routine and a bit of nature can be the best medicine sometimes. If I find I'm having a really hard week or whatever, going for a surf allows me to bring myself back.
What is it about surfing that helps people?
Being in the water is so soothing, you don't choose when the waves come, it's not predictable so you have to force yourself to slow down. I don't think there's much else that would calm you down as much as surfing. I think about life more when I'm in the surf, I'll contemplate everything that's going on but it's more like a removed state, you dedicate a certain amount of time where you can't do anything else so you have this space to think about stuff. For me it's something that breaks up my rhythms, I know I can actually take time out and even if the surf is crap it will still be good, dedicated time - even a gnarly person can find a bit of rest and peace in that time. The best hangs I've had with my mates have been on surf trips, the surf might not be predictable but the agenda is and so it allows you to slow down. Surfing teaches you perseverance too, like I want to surf but you're dependent on the weather. It's kind of like life, you'll have a shit surf, shit surf, shit surf, really average surf, a so so surf, a pretty average surf, and then a really good surf.
What would you say to someone thinking about picking it up?
If you start surfing you will never look back, I know it's not the answer to everything but I think there's an element of doing something that gives you a space for peace and rest. Surfing is a good one cause it's probably not going to kill you but it will grow you, it makes you step out of your comfort zone Funny story actually, I am terrible under-water. I struggle with holding my breath, I can't snorkel, can't even swim properly keeping my head down. As a surfer every time I would go under I would be like oh my goodness gotta get to the top. And then slowly over time it's gotten better.
To be perfectly honest, when I was younger I was just like all the chicks like surfers. But since then, I think just the peaceful vibe, sitting in the ocean you have no control over it, it's inconsistent. Everything changing all the time so you have to be aware of what's going with the waves, the tides, the currents. You have to be switched on a lot of the time, I used to do a lot of spearfishing and there was a time when I swam to the bottom of the se and just sat there. And the smallness it brings, like man we're only tiny in this world. And it keeps me humble I guess. That would be one aspect of why. And the other is relationships, hanging out with people and the roadtrips. There's always something you have to adapt to and it keeps you on your toes which is nice.
Have you struggled with any mental health issues in the past?
Um yeah, for me, I wouldn't say I have struggled with it but when I was younger there was a sense of feeling isolated or lonely a lot of the time. Even if you have a solid community around you, you can still feel like no-one cares. I went through little stages of that. But last year, one of my youth workers actually committed suicide. And then there's been a whole lot more [suicide attempts] in the last couple of weeks as well. That was my first glimpse, a reality check that this is something serious that people talk about but they don't talk about it enough. Going through the stages of grieving someone I was close with and worked with, that was the most emotional I've ever been in my life.
Have you seen that surfing has made any kind of difference for the kids you work with?
Yeah, there's a few crew that have been going through things like family situations. We'll be sitting there having some gnarly conversations and as soon as they get near the beach there's this calmness. There's one kid that has a pretty heavy family situation at the moment, that as a 15-year-old he doesn't really want to deal with, so we'll just go surfing. And he'll be pent up, angry or frustrated, then sitting out in the ocean and catching waves and yarning just calms him down. Something to do with riding a wave, when you're on it everything just falls by the wayside and you're focusing on being real present in that moment. It really helps with the young people I've seen, they can just feel the joy they get from surfing. And then we can talk about it but from a different place than just anger.
What do you think it is that brings that out?
That's what I'm trying to figure out, I think there is something about just being present in the ocean. It's not predictable. Your mind always wanders, but the fact you have to be aware of something bigger than yourself is actually really important. You have to be aware of something other than what you're doing at that time or the shitstorm you're in. And then you catch a wave, and when you're on the wave everything else disappears and there's just joy, even just from standing up and cruising.
I've been real big on teaching people to slow down and to not compromise the grieving process, really feeling the emotions you're feeling at the time. Surfing teaches you that because you literally can't think about anything else apart from the wave you're catching.
How did you get into surfing?
Through my brothers, none of us are super avid surfers but we surf, dive—anything to do with the ocean is a love of ours. I was about nine, using my uncles mini-mal, and I paddled for my first wave and went right over the front of the board. I sort of popped up to take a gasp of air and the board hit me in the back of the head, I didn't surf again for a couple of years. Then we we went up to Sandy Bay up north, I was in a little fluoro wetsuit so I really stood out, and I remember my brother said to me, there are a lot of surfers out there who are 11 and they are really good, so people are expecting you to be good too. And that was the first day I stood up. There's heaps of stuff in my life I've done that I haven't stuck with—rugby, fishing—but surfing I guess I've kept up because I love it. It's reasonably cheap once you have a board and a wetsuit there's no real costs apart from petrol.
What is it about surfing that you think helps people?
I watched a documentary on happiness and they talked about this thing called flow, when you are carefully engaged in the activity you are doing and you lose all other thought, it's all-consuming. For me, that's surfing. When I'm out there I can't think about anything else, I don't want to. If I'm anxious when I'm heading out, I'm definitely not anxious afterward.
Another reason would be what an epic workout it is, all that exercise reducing stress and releasing endorphins. But often there is also an element of fear and adrenaline attached to surfing because of the energy in waves. It doesn't matter how experienced you are, whenever you're dropping in you don't know if you're going to make the drop and get a rush, or get rolled. And I think all of that is releasing good things into your body.
Do you think surfers are more chilled out than most people?
Absolutely. You go to the beach and see these 40-year-old men, standing around leaning on whatever they can find. Having a coffee, watching the waves and thinking about at some stage going to work. I think often people that have been surfing for a while and are a bit older honestly look 5-10 years younger than their age. It could be how they dress—boardies and a Quicksilver tee will do it haha. But over the years, that relaxed lifestyle shows.
Follow Tess on Twitter: @tessairini