The Ocean Element
The concept of “ocean therapy” has lived for ages
in ancient societies and among surfers.
Now, humans with stress recover + recharge in salty waves.
The ocean. Ever changing, ever present. Fierce and dangerous, calm and soothing. Our predominant landscape on this planet.
How do we feel so good, so restored, after being near or in or on the ocean?
For many of us, ultimately it is a connection to something greater. A feeling of bliss, "one ness", remembering that you are part of a greater fabric of being, a sea of vibration, one tiny element in a greater elemental hum.
Soul awareness turns on. Thinking turns off. You feel held by the ocean, energized in its constant lift.
Humbled by the tossing waves, keenly aware of your limitations, yet held by the ever regenerating energy, you contact the bliss that exists beyond body, mind, and the world of finite objects.
Wallace J. Nichols reviews ocean bliss in his book entitled “Blue Mind”. He describes how people feel relaxed, more calm, at peace, more integrated emotionally, uplifted, and energized around water. Many surfers say that surfing taught them a new way of life, an art of navigating the day to day and finding success. The patience to wait for the right timing, the humility to recognize your small role in this large world, the times when best to apply intense effort to catch the wave of a good thing, are life lessons from surfing.
In addition to optimizing your life, studies show that surfing can enhance emotional intelligence and reduce anxiety, even treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Carly Rogers evolved her own experience of ocean renewal into therapeutic sessoins for those with trauma, including veterans. Programs offered by Wounded Warriors Ocean Therapy and Warrior Surf Foundation see soldiers with PTSD find renewed enjoyment of life, deep sleep, and decreased flashbacks and nightmares when surfing regularly. French doctors prescribe surfing to patients to treat various illnesses, from depression to heart disease. Saltwater Sessions director Lena Dickens, PhD, likens surfing on the board to keeping your center in the midst of a changing landscape of reactions and emotions. To keep your focus, not be overwhelmed by the waves or the fear when surfing, teaches perseverance, determination, and increases emotional adaptability.
The evidence is growing, as the trend of surfing catches on.
Negative Ions + Salt
The ocean contains negative ions and salt.
Negative ions are molecules in the air that carry an extra negative charge. As our bodies are electromagnetic, theoretically, the negative ions and salt can recharge and rebalance us. Modern day to day life often has too many positive ions that unbalance and fatigue us - positive ions are generated by pollution, air conditioning, and electronic devices. Crashing waves and waterfalls create an abundance of negative ions, improving energy, mood, increasing alpha brain rhythms and oxygen absorption (1,2). Boosting our antioxidant defense system, lowering blood lactate levels, and improving aerobic metabolism, the enhanced blood flow generated by negative ions detoxes our bodies (3). Lactate is a molecule in the body that is associated with inflammation, and leads to aching muscles and stiffness after intense exercise. So surfing has a built in recovery effect. Less physical and emotional stress and no need for pain medication was observed in negative ion air environments in a hospital study on minor skin surgery patients in an article published by the Canadian Journal of Anaesthesia (3).
Negative air ionization may be associated with lower depression scores; although some trials show no difference compared to placebo (4,5,6,7). People prone to panic attacks are much less likely to experience panic after a rainfall, when negative ion count is high (3).
Salt. Sea salt water has many benefits: magnesium, potassium, and bromides soothe muscle aches; sea salt is a mild disinfectant and can reduce skin conditions; sea salt water massaged to the scalp can improve hair growth; sea salt water promotes moisture retention in skin so may reduce wrinkles and aging of the skin; circulation improves; lung health improves (8).
Although research to date is limited, there is a surge of human love of surfing that speaks to an experiential benefit. Research areas where there is little profit to be made from a product, tend to receive less funding and support, so it may remain an area of limited scientific evidence. However, I encourage you to consider the benefits you feel when immersed in the ocean, and conduct your own "N of one" experience experiments.
The ocean is blue. Blue is a wavelength of light that is found, in experiments, to be calming, relaxing, energizing. Blue enhances connectivity between emotions and other areas of the brain. Blue balances. In Japan, studies show that blue decreases anxiety and even decreases thoughts of life not being worth living. Blue has been found to increase adaptability to emotions (9).
The movement of water has both novelty and repetition. Satisfying our need for adventure and security, the newness and constant waves fulfill two diverse aspects of our psyches. Flotation enhances calm, clears the mind, and decreases stress and is now a serious focus of research in Sweden. Also, when you immerse in water, you balance your catecholamines, which are chemicals in your brain that become imbalanced in stress. Surfing also releases dopamine in your brain, due to the novelty, risk, desire, and effort that it requires - each wave is new (9). Dopamine is depleted in chronic stress, so surfing may therefor be a way to recover from stress (10). Surfing is aerobic, so you also release endorphins which generate feelings and sensations of pleasure and enjoyment, a natural body and mind high. The apres surf calm is the “surfer’s stoke” - relaxed and energized, calm and alert, happy and fulfilled. The surfer’s stoke is the bliss that creates motivation for more surfing.
Water therapy has been used since the late 1800's, becoming a part of standardized care in the early 20th century. In the 1920's and 30's, hospitals featured specific hydrotherapy programs to treat fatigue, exhaustion, anxiety, and depression. Attention to hydrotherapy decreased after this. However, some research on water therapy continues to show powerful enhancement of the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation mode of our bodies and minds. The effects of flotation are likened to the effects of meditation, with strong engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system. Japanese studies show reduced physiological markers of stress and mental fatigue when bathing, associated with improved mental outlook and cognitive performance (3).
cold water immersion
What is the magic that we feel after a cold water surf? Cold water creates significant changes in the body. Heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism increase. Blood flow to the brain decreases. Flow of catecholamines to the edges of the body occurs. Cold water can also decrease pain. Cold exposure can increase the ability of the nervous system to access motor neurons. The active part of the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, is triggered. Noradrenaline and beta-endorphin increase. Cold water may accelerate muscle recovery (11).
Research on Mood and Anxiety
On Manhattan Beach, California, Ryan Pittsinger and his colleagues asked 107 people to rate mood before and after surfing. People were ages 18 to 58, and 85% were male. After 30 minutes of surfing, people were in a better mood and more calm. Pittsinger compares the ocean’s highly unpredictable nature to the unpredictability of everyday life. As surfers use their mind, body and spirit to overcome what the ocean presents, they gain life skills to navigate the way they live their lives (12).
Michael Scott Moore writes in Psych Central on Col. Greg Martin’s experiences in the Wounded Warrior’s program for veterans with PTSD, who says“. . . there’s nothing like surfing to touch the mind, the body and the spirit all at the same time.” Surf Therapy, by Surf Action, in the UK uses surfing as therapy for soldiers. The documentary “Resurface” highlights the veterans review of how the ocean provides solace, commands respect, and helps them form a new set of patterns and habits (13).
Carly Rogers developed an Ocean Therapy program in 2003 via the University of Southern California. Since that time, more than 1000 soldiers have been treated. In a paper published in 2014 in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, Rogers detailed how PTSD symptoms decreased significantly after 5 weeks (14).
Nick Caddick, a psychologist at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, spent a year and a half studying the effects of surfing on British soldiers. “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 (15).
Many of us know the thrill and rejuvenation we get when surfing or otherwise engaged in ocean time. Enhancing our mental and physical performance while deeply connecting us on a soul level to something greater, the ocean element brings us to a place of great peace and clarity.
For those of us curious about the science of ocean rejuvenation, the power of the ocean to restore mood and reduce stress is evidenced in preliminary studies. Given our "Age of Anxiety", with more and more people experiencing stress and burn out, the ocean has potential to restore and recharge us.
The ocean can dramatically improve well being. If you are interested in experiencing how the ocean enhances your clarity and deepens your peace, consider our one week retreats or a four hour session in the wild setting of Tofino, BC, Canada. The focus of the retreats and sessions is to enhance and optimize you.
Treat your self to some ocean time,
and see if you feel back to your vibrant happy self -
With continued love for the ocean and optimal living,
* Retreats and sessions In Tofino, Canada are for wellness and prevention. In Canada, surfing is not an evidence-based form of therapy thus not covered under the public healthcare system.
(1) Negative Ions create Positive Vibes. Popular literature: WebMD
(2) The Power of Negative Ions. Popular literature: Pranaview Australia.
(3) Selhub E & Logan A. "Your Brain on Nature" (book)
(4) Terman M & Terman JS 1995. "Treatment of seasonal affective disorder with a high-output negative ionizer." In J Altern Complem Med. 1(1):87-92. Note: The Termans are based at Columbia University in NYC, New York, USA.
(5) Terman M & Terman JS 2006. "Controlled trial of naturalistic dawn simulation and negative air ionization for seasonal affective disorder." In Am J Psychiatry Dec 163(12):2126-33.
(6) Arehart-Treichel, J. 2007. "Negative Ions may offer unexpected MH Benefit." In Psychiatric News, published by the American Psychiatric Association.
(7) Perez, V. et al. 2013. “Air ions and mood outcomes: a review and meta-analysis.” in BMC Psychiatry
(8) "Sea swimming may add years to your life." Popular literature (with research references): Mail Online.
(9) Nichols, Wallace J. 2015. Blue Mind: The Surprising Science that shows how being near, in, or on water can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do. (book)
(10) Cruikshank, T. 2016. "Meditate your weight." (book)
(11) Moovenham A & Nevithita J 2014. "Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body." N Am J Med Sci 6(5): 199–209.
(12) Need a mood lift? Grab your surfboard. Popular Literature: LiveScience.
(13) Treating PTSD with Surf Therapy. Popular Literature: Psych Central.
(14) Rogers CM, Mallinson T, Peppers D. 2014. 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. 68; 395-404.
(15) Caddick N, Smith B, Phoenix C. 2015. The effects of surfing and the natural environment on the well-being of combat veterans. Qual Health Res. 25(1):76-86.