6 lessons Surfing can teach you that are good for your emotional health.
November 3, 2018
I was born and raised in classic middle class northern, suburban Britain. It was towny, there was a big city on my doorstep and it rained a lot. My only real trips to the beach were once-a-year holidays abroad, usually to islands in Europe. Surfing definitely did not figure at all. At 18 I lived in Australia and although I was very curious to try it (many many afternoons of coming home from school to 'Home & Away'...), in my eyes, surfing was something you could only do if you had been raised at the beach. Not if you're a awkward brit with minimal experience of the ocean. It also scared the hell out of me; what about the sharks?! You're so far out to sea! What if something touches your foot?!, and - maybe most inaccurately of all - I thought it was mainly for boys. Then I went to live with some family in the Philippines for a few months, went scuba diving more or less everyday and my relationship with the ocean completely changed. I learnt about how to read currents, understand coral and about how many of the most poisonous and dangerous creatures - are actually really really small and hard to find, so thats a plus. The more time I spent in it, (and at the bottom of it), the more I came to understand, read and respect the oceans power. It sounds cheesy, but really I fell in love with it.
Of course, then life took over and I found myself back in my old life with all that a distant memory. Then, I found a gap in my life giving me another opportunity to take a big trip.
My first ever surf lesson was in Tamarindo in Costa Rica when I was 23. I had never gone near a surf board in my life and now I'd just traveled five thousand miles on my own to do nothing but. In hindsight, maybe this had been a bit ambitious. I probably could have just gone to the south of France or something - but there we go.
Anyway, my relationships with surfing definitely did not start out as the brilliant love affair I had imagined and my time in Costa Rica was plagued by sand flies, bad weather - and scarily enormous waves. I was definitely a little out of my depth (if you'll excuse the pun..) but I did however begin to see that learning to surf and dipping into that lifestyle has far more to offer than the obvious benefits of physical exercise and a great tan.
As someone who has struggled with their mental health, I am always grateful to discover anything that helps to calm the chatter of my mind, challenge my ways of thinking or help re-discover some perspective and peace in this crazy crazy world. I have been on several surf holidays since (a little closer to home this time!) and each time enforces what I first discovered back in Costa Rica. When I looked into it further, I also found that Surf Therapy exists (which of course I was over the moon about!), and has been proven as effective treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Veterans and contributed to recovery in addiction.
I found surfing to be like a teacher, a teacher who taught and reminded some home truths that seemed to balance out my psyche. So, here are some of the ways in which thrashing around in the ocean for a good few hours wrestling with an odd shaped board - can actually be really beneficial for your mental health (even if you do feel a bit silly)....
1) It teaches you Self Compassion.
Self compassion is often found to be low in those suffering with depression, causing them to place unrealistic and sometimes impossible expectations upon themselves. When they fail to meet these expectations, it is seen as evidence of their inadequacy and unworthiness and perpetuates the negative thought patterns which can fuel depression. Learning to surf can enable you to understand and challenge this. You are just not going to be good at it straight away. Its really hard and personally, I think surfing is one of the most difficult solo sports out there. Its highly skilled and takes guts, intense physical strength and a lot of practice to become good.
On my very first surf lesson I could barely get onto the board on my stomach without falling straight over the other side. How on earth did people stand up? I was also completely terrified of this enormous ocean (despite my previous diving experiences) and felt maybe I really wasn't cut out for this after all. An easy mindset to fall into and totally normal when it seems everyone else can do something and you can't, but thats' where the self-compassion comes in. You're learning. So give yourself a break, remember its hard - and enjoy it. Surfing is a great way to learn this because you likely wont be doing anything impressive for a very long time. It took me a lot of thrashing about and looking like an right banana before I ever even stood up but that's not the point. Its a perfect opportunity to practice compassion for yourself. Which brings me to my next point...
2) It teaches you patience.
Surfing is exhausting - even for the fittest among us. It can also be a heck of a lot of work for what seems like very little gain. Battling through the white water whilst trying not to get hit in the face with your own board can easily become frustrating. (Why am I doing this again?!) However, when you do finally stand up and take a wave right back to the shore (even if its only a miniature one like I do!), its so worth. That takes patience. There's also the times when you have to be patient with the ocean and wait for a good wave, or, in line with my previous point on self compassion - you have to be patient with your own ability and stick with it.
3) It teaches you to trust your body – and then let go.
The first time my instructor was like 'ok now pop up!' it felt like the most unnatural thing in the world and I was pretty convinced I was just going to fall off and nose dive into the water. Funnily enough I did just that. "you've got to learn to trust your body if you want to do this" was his next instruction. I had to believe I could do it, physically, or I was just going to keep nose diving into that water. A lot of us don't have a great relationship with our bodies and we don't trust them, but a fundamental part of surfing is trusting your body, you simply have to. The letting go part comes when you fall off. At that point you have to relinquish control, let go and let the waves take you until you find the surface again. If you resist or stiffen up, you risk injuring yourself. Sometimes this is the case in life, with our emotions, relationships and the cards we are dealt. You have to relinquish control and trust - without guarantee.
4) It teaches you perspective.
The vastness and temperamental nature of the ocean can be a stark reminder of how insignificant and powerless you actually are in this life. I personally find this humbling and comforting. For me, its a reminder of whats really important, and it can bring into sharp focus how many of my worries are really nothing to worry about at all. The ocean could destroy you very easily if it wanted to, and a recognition of how powerless you are is a reflection of how little control we really have in life and to appreciate every day we get. In the modern world, it can appear that we have so much control, but nature will always remind us differently. No matter how far we go trying to prevent, perfect and predict, there is no invincibility - life can always be stolen in a second. Admittedly, that might seem like a bit of head-wrecker, but surrendering to this fact can not only reduce the pain of taking undue responsibility, but inspire gratitude and self compassion. You get one life - and in it, you can only ever do your best. Go sit on a surf board in the middle of the sea and I guarantee you'll feel the same.
5) It teaches you focus, which will calm your mind.
Surfing requires you to focus. There is a great big ocean around you, its difficult, a little unpredictable and a little dangerous. There are no distractions from the outside world and its just you (and maybe a few friends scattered about too.) As someone who is very easily distracted, I find there are very few other activities I have ever done which have kept me so constantly focused. It is completely absorbing and calming all at the same time, and not only a valuable experience in discipline and the correlation between focus and achievement, but a real break from the crowded chatter of my often over-active mind.
6) It shows you how important it is to look where you want to go.
If you look down when you're surfing - you'll end up there. This is probably quite true of life too so look to where you want to go, don't look down, don't look back - and always keep your head up.
Unfortunately, until I manage to escape again, I’m stuck in Manchester for the time being, so minimal surf options for me! But if you are in a position to try - I would highly recommend it. It’s a real treat for the soul and along with all the things I’ve previously mentioned, it can boost your confidence, release endorphins and it is definitely not onlyfor the boys.