Catching the Wave of Surf Therapy


When it comes to experiential therapies, surf therapy can be very appealing to adolescent clients. The appeal is helpful, but surf therapy itself actually has many benefits in the treatment of both substance use disorder (SUD) and mental health disorders. Clients gain physical, psychological, and social benefits from being in a natural environment that promotes both healing and resilience. As a mental health care provider, you can reach more teens by catching the wave of surf therapy.

The Physical Benefits of Surf Therapy

Surfing is a physically demanding activity, but one that can be learned by those who are willing to try. There is a focus on upper body strength and development of the core through both paddling and balancing, respectively, but surfing also burns about 250 calories per hour and provides a great overall workout experience.

The physical demands of surf therapy helps to get teens back into their bodies and to reconnect with the world and with themselves, both mentally and physically. At the same time, being in the natural environment of the ocean allows them to be physically removed from their lives and their triggers and gives them time and space to think and process while they are on the water in a way that they cannot do when sitting in an office setting.

Surfing as a Form of Mindfulness

While many forms of exercise allow the mind to wander, surfing requires you to be in the moment. You must be in tune with the waves and the natural elements around you, and you need to maintain a high level of self-awareness as well. What surfers call “becoming one with the wave” is actually a form of mindfulness.

This naturally-induced form of mindfulness helps with stress reduction, clearing your mind, and being present in the moment. Surf therapy also provides a natural metaphor for a coping technique called “urge surfing.” In this technique, you are aware that an urge or craving will rise and have a peak, and then fall, like a wave. Being able to ride it out is just like riding a wave on the ocean. Learning to physically surf and ride the waves helps clients understand how to ride out cravings as well.

Learning Resilience on the Waves

Surfing also provides the opportunity to learn resilience. The ability to overcome difficulties and challenges is a real-life experience on the ocean. The ability to learn to stand up on the board, to catch and ride a wave, and to recover when you are pummeled by a wave are all essential lessons in resilience. They provide opportunities for growth, for developing self-esteem, and for learning how to recover when life knocks you down, as it inevitably will.

Likewise, surf therapy teaches the hunger to do and become better. Each time you paddle out and each wave that comes is an opportunity for self-improvement and growth. Each wave represents a new challenge to take and a chance to learn experientially from both successes and failures. This level of resilience translates into confidence and growth on the land and in real life as well.

Developing Social Skills Through Surf Therapy

While surf therapy offers a certain amount of time for self-reflection and developing self-awareness, there is also the opportunity for increased social skills. The opportunity to be a part of a group and learn and experience a new sport and new skills together creates a strong bond and camaraderie between those who are recovering and healing from SUD and mental health disorders. Learning to communicate and help one another, sometimes in situations of survival, can help strengthen these friendships and build communication skills that translate into other relationships in life.

Using Surf Therapy to Reconnect

Surfing helps reconnect the mind and body through physical activity but can also help to reconnect clients with their spirituality. Regardless of what religious beliefs they may or may not have, the connection with the ocean during surfing is widely regarded as a spiritual experience. Learning to connect with something much bigger and more powerful than you are, and learning to surrender to the power of the waves and the elements, helps you connect with your spirituality.

The power of surf therapy helps to reconnect the whole person–mind, body, and spirit. This can be very healing in recovery from both SUD and mental health disorders. Surfing can be more than just a sport or an experience; it can be the gateway to holistic healing. Developing an interest in surfing can also create a passion that is lasting and allows teens to reconnect with the world around them.

Catching the wave of surf therapy can be life-changing for your clients. They will not only gain physical benefits but also learn mindfulness and reconnect mind, body, and spirit as they connect with the world around them. They can also learn social skills and the power of resilience as they learn to honor the power of the ocean and the elements of nature. Sustain Recovery offers an extended residential program for adolescents with SUD and mental health diagnoses in Irvine, California. Our program is unique because our extended length offers clients the opportunity to gradually transition back home. We also help them connect with support in their community for long-term success. We teach independence and accountability in a structured environment. If you have a client who might benefit from our program, call Sustain at (949) 407-9052 to learn more.