A huge surfing wave rolling towards the coast at Dunbar, East Lothian.

Blue Medicine | A Surfer's View

Readily available and free to enjoy, the therapeutic benefits of spending time in the sea are hard to beat. The feeling of wellbeing we get from being immersed in water has been proven to go far beyond the joy of splashing about or riding a wave. Activities such as surfing tender a flow state, just you in the moment, totally immersed and present, connecting with the surroundings.

When you first go surfing - especially if it's in the cold if not bone numbing Scottish coast - it's tricky to acknowledge and appreciate the therapeutic benefits that the sport brings. This is partly down to the stressful process of actually getting into the water. Hauling on a neoprene suit that morphs you into the outer appearance of a seal, dragging a board down to the water’s edge that could be anything from five to nine feet long and gritting teeth to wade deeper into sometimes freezing water. 

But once you head from the shore and paddle past walls of broken waves, known as the white water, and make it to the line-up where the waves begin breaking and surfers line up to catch them, nature starts to reward the effort. The space around begins to open and a whole new perspective presents itself. 

Sitting on top of a surfboard opens your eyes to everything that’s around you. Hills, cliffs, dunes, and the sandy stretches of the beach you set off from can be admired from a different perspective. Birds fly overhead. The sun can rise and set. The bright blue you are immersed in can glimmer and glisten, or mirror dark and stormy skies. A real live seal might suddenly pop its head up to say hello - or a turtle if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in more tropical waters, but that's another blog!

dose of vitamin sea

These days it's no secret that exposure to nature offers positive physiological and psychological benefits. The sea plays a crucial role in contributing to and maintaining the wellness of people and the planet. The buzz from surfing or swimming is a natural high that comes from the production of feel-good mood chemical. Serotonin, perhaps the best know of the chemicals, is produced by nerve cells and released through exposure to negative ions, the invisible molecules we inhale in natural environments like the ocean, forests and mountains. Scientists have identified that exposure to negative ions can increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, stimulating cells to create energy, which also explains why people generally feel more awake and alert after being in the sea. 

The ability saltwater has to wash away pain has become the focus of an increasing amount of research and literature. Easkey Britton, scientist, social activist and pioneer of women’s big-wave surfing in Ireland and the author of Saltwater in the Blood, has explored the healing ability of the sea and presents surfing as not just a sport but a mindfulness practice. Having observed the natural ebb and flow of waves, Easkey has written about how humans can connect to the movements as a philosophy, meeting life and evolving with it, rather than controlling it.

A little closer to home in Edinburgh, in 2021 after spending four years studying the healing powers of surfing, Jamie Marshall, of Stoked Research completed the world’s first doctorate on surf therapy. Jamie’s PhD research examined the surf experience and the key elements involved in shifting identities, namely recognising, learning and celebrating new skills to boost confidence, self-esteem and belief in one’s own ability, escaping from negativity through building a compassionate safe space and the benefits of fostering social connections within the surf community. 

making waves in mental health

In 2021, a NHS survey conducted in the UK found that one in six children aged five to 16 were probably experiencing issues with their mental health. Experts have established that early intervention and providing effective support can reduce anxiety, boost confidence and help prevent issues occurring in later life. 

Surf therapy charity, The Wave Project, has long since recognised the benefits of reaching out to those experiencing mental health issues sooner rather than later. Established in Cornwall in 2011, the charity harnesses the transformational power of the ocean and surfing to improve the mental health of children and young people. Active in 32 beaches and locations throughout the UK and with over 6,000 volunteer surf mentors, the charity delivers free surf therapy programmes that are literally life changing.  As well as experiencing the fun of spending time in the water, learning to surf and building the self confidence that comes with it, the young participants are introduced to positive strategies and coping mechanisms which can help them manage emotional or difficult situations in everyday life. 

Despite the classic stereotype of sunkissed surfer dudes in the prime of life, surfing doesn't age discriminate and as with most things in life, it's never too late to learn. If taking to the water with a full board is too much of a stretch, hit the waves with a boogie board that comes in at half the size and delivers all the fun.

Taking a leaf once again out of Easkey Britton’s inspiring book, surfing demands watching how the swell moves. Choosing the right time when a wave reaches you to let it lift your surfboard. Timing it right to jump on and surf down the face of the wave. Quite literally going with the flow; an action on the water and a mentality to follow on dry land.  


Mental health benefits

The buzz from surfing is a natural high, helping to reduce anxiety, raise mood and boost self-confidence, with the positive effects lasting long after returning to dry land.


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