Riding the Waves: How Surf Therapy Can Heal Trauma

Intent on exploring the healing power of the ocean, one writer joins a week-long retreat with Resurface – an evidence-based surf therapy programme in Morocco – where mindfulness, yoga, surfing and a felt sense of community all contribute to a transformative trip

Surfing is a form of forced mindfulness. When you’re out on the water, focusing on the waves forces you to forget about everything else for that moment in time

Josh Dickson, founder of Resurface UK

Just as I'm about to pack it in for the day, the rumbling of a breaking wave from behind galvanises me swiftly back onto my surfboard. "One last go" I mumble to myself, slapping at the water as I paddle frantically to try to match the incoming wave's speed. The froth licks my toes and I wobble up onto the board, standing - for three glorious seconds - before flopping back into the water, to a chorus of cheers. "Go Grace!" whoop the rest of my group, an assembly of personal cheerleaders that have now gathered along the beach. Riding my first successful wave on day one of Resurface's surf therapy retreat might have been a big personal win, but - as I wade into shore and high-five my newfound friends - I realise it's the shared experience that gives me the biggest high.

To salty-haired, wave-riding obsessives, the benefits of surfing have never been a secret. But beyond the exercise and sheer adrenaline rush, a growing body of scientific research is now proving the sport can positively impact our mental health, too - from helping with anxiety and depression, to improving symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Aside from the obvious mental health benefits that come from physical exertion (reduced stress levels and better sleep quality, to name a few), surfing also requires a singularity of focus that can take our mind off everything else around us - forcing us to connect to the present, as well as with nature. For those suffering with poor mental health, learning a new skill within a group setting can not only offer a confidence boost, but also a much-needed lifeline of social connection.

For Josh Dickson, the founder of Resurface and an accredited Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) consultant, surfing has not only played a pivotal role in his life on a mental and physical level, but on a romantic one, too. Meeting his now-wife Kristine Steffenak (a trained medic and certified yoga teacher) on a surfing retreat, the two have since combined their skill-sets to create a pioneering surf therapy programme that incorporates surfing with psychological workshops and yoga.

I've joined their Trauma Resolution retreat, a week-long programme set in the sun-bleached Moroccan surf town of Tamraght, just half an hour north of the airport in Agadir. Our base for the week is Riad Dar Haven, a sleepy nine-key boutique guesthouse, where days are bookended by yoga on the rooftop with Kristine. Each day offers a jam-packed schedule, but Josh is quick to point out that everything is optional - "this isn't rehab" - he reminds us on our first morning, "go at your own pace."

But, as a yogi myself, waking with sunrise yoga on the rooftop sounds like too good an opportunity to pass up, and as I stretch my way into the morning I feel glad to have skipped the lie-in. After a simple continental breakfast, we gather in a quiet communal room for our morning psycho-education workshop - "developmental trauma" - being the focus of the day. For such a heavy topic, Josh makes the material remarkably digestible - breaking the subject down into a straightforward presentation with a candidness that captures the full attention of the room.

At 10.30am we head to the beach and meet Youness - an endlessly energetic surf instructor whose wellspring of enthusiasm gets even the most nervous among us into the water. A few hours of hilarious wipeouts later and any barriers between our group have been dissolved, our collective spirit now bonded by the waves.

"How are you all feeling?" Josh asks as we sit back down in our cushion-strewn classroom, ready for our next psychotherapeutic workshop. "Exhausted!" we chime back in unison. "Perfect" Josh responds, explaining how this "post-flow" state creates the ideal launch-pad for therapeutic work. "That's the reason we save the real work until after you've been surfing. Being in a lucid post-flow state encourages emotional openness, so you're better prepared for the deep work ahead."

Sure enough, the ensuing "psychodrama" - a structured form of therapy where one person's personal issue is dramatized by the group - is charged with emotion in a way I'd never expected. Despite the different issues we've all come to resolve - some of us battling with relationship breakdowns, others with grief and addiction - there's a shared ambition to move past the trauma, and the emotional vulnerability in the room soon becomes contagious.

After the therapy workshop we're invited to meet Kristine on the rooftop for a session of Yin yoga and NSDR (non-sleep deep rest). Designed to induce a state of memory integration that usually takes place as we sleep, NSDR is introduced at the end of the afternoon to help consolidate the emotional work that's just taken place. After eight hours of intense physical and emotional workouts, a soothing meditation guided by Kristine's gentle voice feels like the perfect way to round off the day.

I might have only known my group for a week, but as we wade into the water together I feel a strange, blood-level sense of belonging

The rest of the week follows a similar rhythm, with a mid-week therapy break spent exploring Imsouane, a ramshackle fishing village with a yawning, burnt-sienna beach (home to the longest surf break in Africa). As the days unfold, any racing thoughts in my mind begin to fade, washed away by the inevitable perspective-shift that comes from spending time in the ocean.

On our last evening the sky is blushed by a beautiful filament-orange sunset, and we decide to walk down to the beach for one final swim. I might have only known my group for a week, but as we wade into the water together I feel a strange, blood-level sense of belonging. A week of surf therapy has equipped me not only with toned arms and a renewed sense of emotional resilience, but a handful of connections I feel confident will be kept for life.

The Lowdown

Resurface UK provides evidence-based week-long surf-therapy programmes for trauma, resilience and flow, creativity and self-care in the UK, Morocco and across Europe. To find out more visit www.resurfaceuk.com/