Navigating the Waves

Surf therapy is being embraced — from the US Navy to the British health service — as a surprisingly effective treatment for depression, anxiety and trauma.

The Great Recovery is a series examining how a surge in innovation, outreach, access and attention to equity is improving our mental health system. It is supported by a grant from Wellcome Trust.

Natalie Small looks at the ocean as if she’s looking into a mirror. “How high are the waves today –– the ones out there on the water and the emotional ones within me? Do I feel like jumping into the tide or rather just wetting my toes? What do I want to discover in the ocean today? And what do I want to leave behind?”

These are questions she likes to ask at the start of every group therapy session on Ocean Beach in San Diego, California. Together, we eight participants sit in a circle and write down our answers in our notebooks. Some scribble their ideas with a colorful sharpie on the white blanket spread out on the sand: “Strength” “Joy” “Fun.”

Small, 38, is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as a surf coach. For the last ten years, she has been combining both professions: She takes her patients to the sea. She is part of a burgeoning niche of psychotherapy that blends traditional therapy with a sport proven to build resilience, confidence and well-being. More than a hippie wellness novelty or New Age fad, surf therapy is being embraced by psychologists and government agencies alike as a way to increase access to mental health care while delivering evidence-based, lasting results.

Small initially started inviting clients who had experienced trauma to the beach, and immediately noticed changes. “Already at the first beach session, the shift was phenomenal. The women’s body language changed; they relaxed, became more open and connected to their bodies.”

At first, she simply transferred her art and somatic therapy sessions to the beach. Then, slowly, Small started taking her clients into the water with body boards and surfboards. Many are anxious about navigating the waves. “Every participant decides herself how far she wants to go out. Maybe she just wants to lie on her stomach and catch a few waves,” Small explains. “It doesn’t matter. After each wave we check in with each other: How did this feel?”

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