Increasingly over the past decade, surfing has served as therapy to help alleviate or mitigate a number of mental, physical and emotional disorders. Organizations centered around disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anger management, autism, and even loss of limbs have utilized surfing as a form of therapy.

The general consensus is that the ocean has a calming and positive effect on people’s psyche and encourages a focus on the present rather than the past. Below, we highlight a few organizations that are using surfing for good – to improve people’s lives where conventional medical interventions haven’t been enough.

Mauli Ola Foundation

Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic disorder that targets a person’s respiratory and digestive system. People born with Cystic Fibrosis produce extremely thick mucus in their lungs, which causes drastic coughing and difficulty breathing. The mucus can clog the lungs and cause life-threatening infections. These lung problems mean frequent hospitalization for those diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.

Australian researchers found that the lungs of surfers with cystic fibrosis were much healthier than the lungs of patients who did not surf. They discovered that the saltwater mist helped rehydrate airway surfaces, which then lubricated the lungs. The overall effect was that it was much easier for those dealing with cystic fibrosis to clear their air passages and break up the thick mucus. In observing the relationship between surfing and healthy lungs, researchers developed a hypertonic saline solution that seeks to provide the benefits of surfing to those who don’t have access to the ocean. Researchers have found that patients who either surf or receive saline solution treatment have half as many lung complications as those patients who do not.

However, surfing offers the unique benefit of combining saline mist and physical exercise into one natural treatment. Combining the two together most efficiently breaks up mucus in the lungs. In 2007, the  Mauli Ola Foundation was started by a group of surfers hoping to touch the lives of children living with cystic fibrosis. The Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing hope and confidence to individuals living with genetic diseases. They hold regular Surf Experience days to get these folks into the water and, hopefully, on their way to healing.

Click here to learn more about the Mauli Ola Foundation

Waves for Change

Many South Africans suffer from acute emotional and psychological stress as a result of exposure to extreme violence and poverty, resulting in the widespread prevalence of mental distress. Waves for Change is an innovative new program that uses surfing and therapy to promote mental health. The organization offers surf lessons, a safe space, and a sense of family as well as life skills training and the opportunity to speak with a counselor. Nolwazi Makhuluphala, the head counselor, says children are taught how to recognize when they’re being overcome by anger or sadness, and how to control their impulses.

Lwandile Mntanywa helps a younger surfer learn to catch a wave.
Anders Kelto/NPR

The program’s founder, Tim Conibear, says surfing is a great way to develop trust between kids and their coach: “Because [the ocean is] a super scary environment, and the bloke who takes you in, or the girl who takes you in, can make you feel safe immediately — if they do it in the right way.” The surf coaches are from the same community as the children and are encouraged to become mentors. Some are also being trained to do basic counseling.

Check out Waves for Change here

The Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation

The United States Marine Corp uses surf therapy as an effective treatment of PTSD. The Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation brings both therapists and surf instructors to Camp Pendleton, located near San Diego, for 2-3 week cycles for a PTSD treatment protocol that involves other stress-reducing activities. Surf therapy provides fun and camaraderie for all the participants.

There are different opinions as to what exactly is the most impactful part of surfing for those with PTSD. Occupational therapist, Carly Rogers, who developed the Jimmy Miller program, based it around Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow theory.” The theory asserts that once a person can get “in the zone,” a positive, focused state of being, for one activity, a person can feel fulfilled and happy. Surfing allows those struggling with PTSD to get in their zone, and this can have a significant impact in all areas of their lives.

Other experts argue that the body movement spurred by surfing causes a shift in the metabolic processes of the brain. This changes brain chemistry, translating into healing and relief from PTSD. Another answer could be that surfing is so physically taxing it allows those with PTSD to sleep soundly, and the focus required from surfing distracts their thoughts from disturbing memories. Regardless of the cause, the US Marine Corps, in conjunction with the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation, has experienced huge successes with surf therapy.

Check out the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation here.

Surfers Healing

Israel Paskowitz, son of famed and eccentric surfer Doc Paskowitz, and his wife, Danielle have a son, Isaiah, who was diagnosed with autism. During an episode at the beach where Isaiah was overwhelmed by the situation, Israel discovered that taking Isaiah into the ocean helped calm him down. “I believe that Isaiah responded so dramatically to the ocean that day because it helped calm him during a time of sensory overload. It was a therapeutic experience for him. There’s something powerful about the weightlessness of floating, the lightness of riding a wave. And our family has seen that transformation time and time again with Isaiah” shared Israel.

The Paskowitz’s thought maybe they could help more families with this therapeutic treatment, and from there, Surfers Healing was founded. Surfers Healing offers free surf camps for children with autism across the country, from San Diego to Rhode Island. They also host camps in Mexico and Puerto Rico. Each year, Surfers Healing surfs with thousands of children with autism.

Check it out Surfers Healing here

If you’re interested in taking surf lessons with us, iSurf trains students of all ages, regardless of skill level, to better understand the ocean. We are the only surf school in Santa Barbara that is endorsed by the World Surf League. Sign up today!