The ocean is a force unto itself. It has the power to devastate entire towns, swallow up ships in a single gulp, and pull swimmers away from the shore never to be seen again. Comprising 70% of the Earth’s total surface, the ocean is home to some of the largest and most vicious animals ever to exist. Its waters can reach chilling depths of 36,000 feet under a crushing pressure of more than 8 tons per square inch.

But the ocean also has the power to heal just as much as it can destroy. Standing at the edge of the shoreline overlooking the ocean’s vast, shimmering turquoise body can make you feel both unstoppable and insignificant at the same time. Its sheer beauty can both overwhelm and inspire. When you enter its waters on a calm day the ocean’s waves sweep you off your feet, caressing your body before gently setting you back down on its sandy floor. After going for a swim in the ocean, it is not uncommon for one to feel youthful, revitalized, and happy.

That is why a relatively new therapy program that takes advantage of the ocean’s healing properties is literally making waves across people who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental illnesses.

As one of the most widespread health problems in the United States, PTSD is responsible for  more than $3 billion in treatment costs in the Veterans Affairs system per year. The two most common treatments are prolonged-exposure therapy, which involves repeatedly revisiting the traumatic experience, and cognitive-processing therapy, which analyzes how a patient responds to events in his or her postwar life. Neither technique, however, works for everyone. Countless alternative methods have been tried to alleviate PTSD—from electroshock therapy and hypnosis to art therapy and yoga—with varying rates of success.   

In 2003, Carly Rogers, a Los Angeles County lifeguard and graduate student at the University of Southern California, began developing Ocean Therapy, a program that quickly proved to be a success. The program teaches people how to surf and is accompanied by group discussions. After testing the program in 2007 with a dozen solders at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, the usually reserved soldiers were laughing and talking after just a few waves. “Oh, my God, our Marines are talking,” said the lieutenant who had approved the experiment. “They don’t talk. Ever.”

The program is based on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory, which argues that when a person’s mind is fully focused and immersed in an activity, it produces a feeling of enjoyment and peace in the process of the activity. Flow states flood the brain with neurochemicals such as anandamide and serotonin, the same substances found in antidepressants. Achieving a flow state is comparable to meditation.

Learning how to surf combines achievement of the flow state with the physical and spiritual healing powers of the ocean. “By achieving this goal in this dynamic environment where they’re broken down to nothing,” Rogers says, “they’ll learn to be self-sufficient in other areas.”

Since Rogers developed the program, more than 1000 soldiers have been treated with Ocean Therapy. In a paper published in 2014 in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, Rogers wrote that Ocean Therapy significantly decreased PTSD symptoms after 5 weeks. 

Nick Caddick, a psychologist at Loughborough University in the United Kindgom, spent a year and a half studying the effects of surfing on British soldiers. One of his subjects had been planning to hang himself, but every time he went surfing he put it off for at least another week. “Regular surfing was necessary for disrupting the cycle of PTSD symptoms that would otherwise remain a continuous or uninterrupted source of suffering,” he wrote in a paper published in 2015.

Veterans themselves describe Ocean Therapy as a way to take their minds off of the horrors that haunt their memories. “In combat,” veteran Louis Scott explained, “you look to your left and you look to your right, and you’re always worried about your brother. In the surf, you look to your left and you look to your right, and you’re out there with your brothers. And yet you’re having fun.”

In a society that often relies heavily on prescribing medications to alleviate our ailments, it’s easy to forget that sometimes the best treatment comes from the purest of sources: Mother Nature.

Reference

  1. Caddick N, Smith B, Phoenix C. The effects of surfing and the natural environment on the well-being of combat veterans. Qual Health Res. 2015;25(1):76-86.
  2. Moore M.S. Treating PTSD with surf therapy. PsychCentral website. January 30, 2013. http://psychcentral.com/lib/treating-ptsd-with-surf-therapy. Accessed September 28, 2015.
  3. Ocean Therapy. The Jimmy Miller Foundation website. http://jimmymillerfoundation.org/ocean-therapy.  Accessed September 28, 2015.
  4. Rogers CM, Mallinson T, Peppers D. High-intensity sports for posttraumatic stress disorder and depression: feasibility study of Ocean Therapy with veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Am J Occupational Ther. 2014:68; 395-404. doi:10.5014/ajot.2014.011221.
  5. Skenazy M. Can surfing reprogram the veteran’s brain? Outside Online website. September 15, 2015. http://www.outsideonline.com/2015801/trim-toward-light-ptsd-surf-therapy. Accessed September 28, 2015.