This post was originally published on November 23, 2015.
I’ve always excelled in making things more difficult than they need to be. So it never fails to surprise me when there are simple solutions to seemingly complicated problems. A recent article in Outside magazine suggests surfing may be a simple solution to the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that affects so many military veterans, as well as alcoholics and addicts.
A $3 Billion-a-Year Problem
Veterans of war experience things we can’t imagine and if they are lucky, they get to return home carrying the burden of their experiences and whatever emotional and psychological effects they may produce. These men and women are heroes, yet some of them live with unspeakable nightmares embedded in their psyches.
PTSD causes many to suffer from lack of sleep, be unable to hold down a job or a relationship, even struggle with depression—sometimes leading to suicide. Vets who also have chronic pain may end up with prescriptions for heavy narcotics like Vicodin and Oxycontin, which can lead to addiction, resulting in more depression, lost jobs, relationships and loss of sleep (passing out isn’t considered sleep). It’s a vicious cycle that lands some veterans, as well as alcoholics and addicts, at the bottom of a freeway off-ramp, holding a sign begging for change. Treating vets with PTSD costs the US government about $3 billion a year.
The well-known treatments for this hard-to-understand, often very private disorder have been forms of CBT, like Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy and CPT. Another recognized method is EMDR. While these therapies have shown to be effective, not everyone has had positive experiences with them, some comparing the treatments to punishment. This isn’t surprising considering the process often requires those afflicted to go deep into their memory bank and revisit the traumatic experiences.
Going With the Flow
In 2003, Carly Rogers, a Los Angeles County lifeguard and USC grad student, developed Ocean Therapy, or surf therapy, which provided those suffering from PTSD with a more active (and arguably pleasant) alternative to heal their trauma. While it’s kind of unclear how the method works, Rogers believes it has something to do with Flow Theory, aka being in the zone, the mental state in which a person is fully immersed in an activity. The physicality of the sport also plays a big part.
So can surfing cure PTSD? Well, military bases like Camp Pendleton have implemented surfing as an alternative treatment for trauma and, since 2007, over a thousand vets have hit the waves. Rogers reports that in the past year, symptoms of PTSD had significantly decreased in the vets who participated in (and showed up regularly for) surf therapy.
You Won’t Find Me Catching Any Waves
As someone who has suffered from PTSD, I finally sought treatment through EMDR and have seen great results. However, I must concur that these sessions were anything but pleasant. In fact, I usually left feeling scared and fragile and headed straight for Rite Aid to pick up one to three bags of red licorice. Then I’d draw my curtains and binge on processed sugar while losing myself in a Law and Order SVU marathon (what can I say? This is what makes me feel good).
Although losing one evening a week to healing the trauma I have lived with for over two decades seemed well worth it to me, I can certainly understand others avoiding such treatment. Hopefully, these people are lucky enough to live near a beach and can find their solution in something a little more peaceful, like surfing. However, for this alcoholic, few things would be more traumatic than waking up at 5 am and putting on a wet suit.