Mase knows the feeling.
The medicinal practice of surf keeps you off drugs
Story by Morgan Williamson
Without sounding too hippy-dippy; the ocean has a powerful vibrancy. There’s a healing energy in it, one that’s hard to explain, but any man who’s washed off a heavy hangover and cleared his sinuses with a mid-morning (or noon) session can contest to this. It’s tough to argue that surfing’s not therapeutic. It’s one the best ways to clear your head. It’s the epitome of escapism, the ocean wasn’t made for humans, but fuck neither was space. We’ve always been needy for new frontiers and environments. In the midst of crowds, mean-mugs and the surfing’s selfish nature, we all surf for the same reason; because it’s fun. I know personally my mood shifts when the waves have been flat for a week and become overwhelmed with this need to get into the water. At the very least grab a log and paddle around. There’s something about getting wet and going for a little wiggle that does wonders in the realm of uplifting mood. But I’m relatively healthy and don’t have any diagnosed psychological disorders.
There are plenty of organizations in place that utilize this notion of surf therapy. Some are geared towards autism, PTSD, the generally disabled; physical or mental, some as a coping mechanism for previous addictions, whatever the malady, all these orgs believe that surfing's a way to alleviate symptoms of the ailed. “The combination of gravity-reduced exercise, open blue spaces, and soothing rhythmic auditory environments lowers cortisol (stress hormone) and boosts serotonin,” scientist and New York Times bestseller, Dr Wallace J Nichols tells me. “Cortisol is key here as it impedes the healing process and is implicated in many stress-linked diseases.”
With all these non-profits running for years on end, I figured something has to be working and have a piqued interest in why? Darryl “Flea” Virostko, Mavericks pioneer and Santa Cruz legend fell into the world of meth addiction and alcoholism. Once he got clean he opened a sober-living center aptly named FleaHab. “I try to get people back into the sports that they like and making healthy choices,” Flea tells me. “It can be anything. But surfing, being from my background is what I show them the most. It’s great to see these guys get back into something that’s fun. Especially with surfing, it’s the whole process, getting up, out, checking spots, it takes a long time. That really helps with addicts, once we get too much downtime we start thinking, what the fuck do I do? We all have addictive personalities, and once that’s combined with something physical the addictive side kicks in and guys just want to surf all the time. Addiction can’t be avoided, but it can be substituted.”
“Addictions of all kinds are about dopamine,” says Dr J Nichols. “The rush of surfing (and other action sports) gives our brain a burst of dopamine. Renowned neuroscientist Dr Mike Merzenich told me that if we can hook the addict brain to something that gives that dopamine hit without the negative side effects it may become a useful therapy. Surfing is perfect. Always changing, progressively more difficult, with all kinds of other benefits. Of course all surf addicts will tell you of the two major downsides: it can interfere with other aspects of one’s life such as career and relationships and long spans of flat days can become unbearable and lead to relapses.”
In San Luis Obispo an organization called Operation Surf uses this therapy to treat veterans and active duty military members suffering from PTSD. “A lot of guys struggle with their dreams being nightmares,” Amanda Curaza, co-founder of Operation Surf tells me. “They find that when they’re surfing they aren’t having the nightmares and are able to sleep through the night.” This could just be the result of surfing being an exhausting activity. “A lot of these guys are heavily medicated and still cannot sleep more than two/three hours a night. During our weeklong events they find themselves sleeping a full eight hours undisturbed.”
“Some research by Nick Caddick and his team at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, UK in the journal Sociology of Health & Illness focused on post traumatic stress (PTS) in veterans,” says Dr J Nichols, “and considered the efficacy of surf therapy as a path to the development of positive masculine traits and better health.”
"Just being out by the sea is good in itself, being in it is far better, and learning how to ride waves doesn’t compare with anything.” —Mathew, Northern Ireland veteran.
TheraSURF is a grass roots organization in Los Angeles that specializes in getting children with all disabilities into the ocean. “My step-son has special needs, he’s one of the reasons why we have theraSURF going today,” theraSURF founder and Malibu local Jimmy Gamboa tells me. “It’s the weirdest thing, you take a kid out and they don’t want to be there. Then it hits them where they’re at, all these kids have sensory issues and behavioral issues. When they hit the ocean it can be a sensory overload or it has the opposite effect. Surfing puts people at peace and that’s why it’s so popular, because it makes us happy. It’s amazing to see the kids go from one personality to the next.”
“My stepson wasn’t walking when I first met him, he was three years old,” Jimmy continues. “I started to take him surfing, it was amazing to see how stoked he was on it. I’d walk with my board up the point and he would follow the board. It’s what got him to start walking. He realised I have to walk if I want to go surfing.”
“Water/surf therapy doesn’t need to be considered as an alternative to traditional or pharmaceutical-based therapy,” says Dr J. “Rather it’s a complement that can allow other therapies to work better and for some people a reduction in the number of kinds and dosages of drugs. With that can come fewer negative side effects and more positive side effects such as being able to finally sleep…which leads to all kinds of good cognitive, emotional, psychological and social benefits.”
“In conversations with Jack O’Neill over the past five years I’ve joked with him that his wetsuits have probably cured and helped more people than many pharmaceuticals by extending their access to water,” Dr J concludes. “It’s cool to think about a time when medical professionals prescribe wetsuits, boards and two sessions per week.”