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It is often difficult for individuals in early  recovery to find ways of coping with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other forms of mental health diagnoses. This can be very discouraging and will sometimes lead to a relapse. Individuals can feel that the only way out is through numbing the pain – whether physical or psychological – with substances. The good news is that there are a variety of mindfulness techniques one can incorporate into their life to bring inner peace, growth, and hope. Examples of this include meditation, yoga, breathwork, and exercise.  These practices can help individuals break out of destructive thought patterns and begin developing a new life perspective. Today, there is another mindfulness practice that we would like to showcase: surfing! 

Surfing has been a passion of mine since childhood. From a young age, surfing and the ocean have become a safe haven for me when dealing with life?s stressors. When I?m in the water, I connect with nature and my negative thoughts become distant. My mind quiets down, my body relaxes, andI become fully present in the moment. I focus on the horizon and search for the next wave. This, plus the sensation of the water, leaves me with the sense that something much greater than myself is allowing me to enjoy the moment. When the wave I?ve been waiting for comes and I catch it, it is pure joy. Few things compare to the dopamine release that happens when I ride a great wave. For me, it?s one of the best natural highs I can experience. Our addiction treatment center, West Coast Recovery Centers in Carlsbad, CA, has started to incorporate surfing as a therapeutic modality for our patients. 

Surfing?s Therapeutic Benefits

The medical benefits of surfing are increasingly being recognized by the medical community. Primary care physicians are now prescribing it because of the positive effects it has on those afflicted by mental illness, specifically those who exhibit symptoms like depression, PTSD, irritability, insomnia, bi-polar disorder, and other destructive behaviors. If done in the morning, surfing can help ?set the tone? for the rest of day and increase serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine levels in our body, leading to a better state of mind.

In recent years, the United States Marine Corp has incorporated surf therapy as an effective treatment of PTSD. The Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation brings therapists and surf instructors to the Camp Pendleton military base in California (just north of our facility in Carlsbad, CA) for 2-3 week cycles. The PTSD treatment protocol involves both surfing and other stress reducing activities. Carly Rogers, who founded the Jimmy Miller program, based it around Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi?s ?flow theory?, which asserts that if a person can get ?into the zone? (a positive and crystalized state of being) for an activity, that person can therefore feel fulfilled and happy. Those suffering from PTSD can get into this zone by surfing. Others even assert that surfing causes a shift in the metabolic processes of the brain, which changes brain chemistry and leads to healing from PTSD. 

Warriors, Trauma, and Surfing

I recently participated in the Wounded Warrior Project, which sends wounded veterans returning from combat to surf camps around the country. Many service men and women coming back from war will struggle with polytrauma: the condition in which one suffers from numerous physical and mental impairments from combat exposure. Many physicians will prescribe opioid medication to resolve the pain these soldiers experience everyday, especially those who are amputees. Surfing has proven to be more effective than almost any medication because it allows for balance and strength training, hydrotherapy, and mental therapy.

In one instance, I recall riding a wave with a man who had two prosthetic legs. I held onto him as we caught the wave and helped him get to his feet. I will always remember the glow on his face when we got to the shore. This experience, as a therapeutic practice, can help reduce the pharmaceuticals that are prescribed to that population. 

Surfing also has been proven to have beneficial effects for those struggling with Autism and Cystic Fibrosis. Those with Autism respond well to high energy activities, and surfing helps to manage the individual?s anxieties of the outside world by replacing them with the tranquility of the ocean. Cystic Fibrosis has a huge impact on breathing and lung health of those afflicted. Studies have shown that surfers with this condition have much healthier lungs than those who do not. The saltwater mist also helps to rehydrate airway surfaces, which in turn leads to lubricating the lungs. 

All these factors point to surfing as an extremely beneficial modality for the mind, body, and spirit. It brings joy and peace into the lives of people all over the world, and especially to those patients at our treatment center who elect to participate in this activity. For me, and the entire staff at West Coast Recovery Centers, it is a joy to see so many people utilize and adopt this wonderful sport. This is why we added surfing programs as an option to our current clients as well as to our alumni. I look forward to seeing moree medical studies emerge from the medical community on the therapeutic benefits of surfing in the coming years. See you at the beach! 

Evan Chodzko
Evan Chodzko is Head of Business Development at West Coast Recovery Centers (WCRC) in Carlsbad, CA. WCRC empowers and inspires change through innovative, traditional and non-traditional methods of treatment for those suffering from substance abuse addiction or mental health disorders. He can be reached at 855-817-7219 or [email protected].
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