Surfing and Respite from PTSD

I’ve always wanted to learn how to surf, but I live in a landlocked city, 1200 km from an ocean, and I’m afraid of sharks. Thanks Stephen Spielberg. Like most outdoor activities, surfing provides a space and place, separate from daily life, to engage in a fun and challenging activity. This experience can contribute to a person’s overall sense of well-being. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – I have a not-so-fond memory of butchering his name, along with my research, in my thesis defense – has studied the benefits of activities, from art to sports, that completely absorb participants and provide them with a deep sense of joy and oneness. He calls this the flow experience. Research by Csikszentmihalyi suggests that people who experience flow on a regular basis have more positive experiences and more meaningful lives than people who do not. So it comes as no surprise when researchers from the universities of Exeter and Loughborough (UK) discovered that surfing promoted well-being in combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The research team, led by Nick Caddick, selected participants for their study from a UK based surfing charity. Sixteen male participants (aged 27 to 60 years), who had been exposed to combat risks in a warzone, agreed to participate in the study. All participants, whether diagnosed or not, identified themselves as suffering with PTSD. The researchers avoided using an official diagnosis of PTSD as an inclusion criterion due to disagreement among professionals as to the categorization of PTSD.

Caddick and his team used qualitative data collection and analyses techniques. Caddick himself collected all the field data over a year and six months. He used semi-structured life history interviews and participant observation to gather information about his participants’ personal and social lives and their experiences with surfing. All members of the research team participated in data analysis and the identification of common themes.

The researchers discovered that surfing in the “blue gym” (activities in a natural water environment) provided participants with a respite from PTSD. Specifically, the flow experience of surfing temporarily broke through the psychological stress caused by PTSD. As one participant explained:

It’s just that escape isn’t it. Get out of that cycle of all the symptoms for a few hours. And it shows that if you don’t do it—if you don’t go—you end up going back downhill again; everything starts getting worse again.

Consistent with Csikszentmihalyi’s description of the flow experience, Caddick’s participants derived extreme pleasure and joy from their surfing in the blue gym. These joyful experiences boosted their subjective well-being. Furthermore, surfing provided a space and place where participants could bond and form positive relationships, thus reducing their potential isolation due to PTSD and adding to an already enjoyable experience.

However, there was a potential downside to all the positives of surfing. Participants did experience feelings of emptiness after surfing. This motivated them to pursue other activities while away from surfing such as walking, relaxing, playing music, meditating, and being in nature.

Participants in Caddick’s research did not believe in a medical cure for their PTSD. They knew that PTSD would stay with them for the rest of their lives, so they had to adopt coping strategies to mitigate the effects of PTSD. Surfing, the camaraderie it created, and sharing stories on how surfing has provided respite from PTSD aided in this process.

Caddick and his team encourage health practitioners to consider the potential benefits of surfing, “not as a panacea or as a cure for PTSD, but as a promising addition to methods of treatment and support for combat veterans experiencing PTSD.”

I have discussed my own life-transforming experiences as a result of outdoor activities in my blog post The Life Active. The flow experience is extremely powerful and I encourage you to pursue an activity that will provide you with this experience. Paint, meditate, mountain bike, run, or hike. Do what it takes to find your flow. It doesn’t have to be outside, but it does help as I have discussed in previous posts (Nature Helps, Does Nature Influence How We Think?, and What is Nature?) and in my own research, Active Aging: Hiking, Health, and Healing.

I also encourage you to read some of Csikszentmihalyi’s research. Although he has written extensively on flow, my favourite article by him is If We Are So Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy? Read and enjoy. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Rodney Steadman 16 February 2015

Works Cited

Caddick, N, Smith, B, & Phoenix, C (2014). The Effects of Surfing and the Natural Environment on the Well-Being of Combat Veterans. Qualitative Health Research, 25 (1), 76-86 DOI: 10.1177/1049732314549477

Csikszentmihalyi, M, & Hunter, J (2003). Happiness in Everyday Life: The Uses of Experience Sampling. Journal of Happiness Studies, 4 (2), 185-199 DOI: 10.1007/978-94-017-9088-8_6

Csikszentmihalyi, M (1999). If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? American Psychologist, 54 (10), 821-827 DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X.54.10.821

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