Surf's Up for Traumatized War Veterans

Combat veterans battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are finding solace in surfing, says psychologist Nick Caddick.

Nick caddickRiding a wave, relaxing on the board, and telling surf stories before, during, and after, has become a unique and effective therapeutic treatment, says CaddickHe works at the Veterans and Families Institute (Anglia Ruskin University, UK) and discusses the results of his study for Veterans Day and Remembrance Day on November 11.

ResearchGate: What makes surfing and the water unique in treating PTSD?

Nick Caddick: Surfing immerses a person’s body in nature in a way that few other activities can, and that in itself is associated with benefits to well-being. The ocean environment draws the body and the senses into experiencing the present in a fully embodied way. For the veterans, even being tossed around in rough waves was pleasant: it was literally like feeling PTSD being ‘washed away’ or ‘pummelled out of their system’. Importantly, these are not simply metaphorical ways of describing the experience, but how it actually feels. All of this combined makes surfing a powerful and absorbing experience for veterans. It takes them far away from the traumatic thoughts and memories associated with PTSD.

RG: How is surfing different to therapy sessions for veterans suffering from PTSD?

Caddick: Firstly, it’s physically active and encompasses the whole body, and is not simply targeted at resolving ‘maladaptive thought patterns’ to use the crude cognitivist terminology. Veterans connect with this embodied approach, partly because the job they did was very physical and surfing reconnects them with that. Secondly, surfing is ‘action-focused’ as opposed to ‘PTSD-focused’. Many of the clinical approaches to PTSD treatment require veterans to relive traumatic memories. Some veterans find this deeply upsetting and there is typically a high drop-out rate with this kind of therapy.

RG: Surfing is a social sport – how much of a role does this play into PTSD?

Caddick: For the veterans, going surfing with other veterans was one of the most crucial aspects of the experience. Sharing the positive experience of surfing with others who instinctively knew what they were going through was extremely comforting and also therapeutically powerful. The veterans spoke of an instant, intense, unspoken, and tacitly acknowledged connection with other veterans and of “not having to explain, yet being understood”. They felt acceptance and a sense of belonging among other veterans that was missing with civilians. There was a powerful element of peer support that has rarely part of other clinical or medical approaches to PTSD treatment.

ResearchGate: In this and other research, you highlight the significance of storytelling in PTSD. What are the benefits of surfing stories?

Caddick: Surfing together provided the veterans in my research with positive stories to share and laugh over. A key aspect of storytelling in the group was ‘banter’ (i.e., poking fun of each other, laughing with and at each other, and general clowning around). Surf sessions with the veterans were generally raucous affairs, with lots of loud hooting, hollering and laughter, with surfboards flying in all directions and bodies splashing into the water.

The veterans in my study frequently told stories about surfing as “respite” from PTSD. The story is therapeutically significant because of how it sustains veterans’ well-being in between surfs, and in holding off the “chaos” associated with PTSD. This is where problems start to spiral and life becomes unmanageable or unbearable. Telling stories about surfing reminded the veterans of something positive to look forward to, and helped them to remember and connect with the feelings associated with surfing. For some, having this positive anchor in their lives was profoundly significant in that it stopped them from contemplating suicide. One veteran talked about a tree in his back garden that he knew could support his weight should he decide to tie a rope around it with a noose at the end. Having surfing to look forward to stopped him thinking about that tree. 

RG: Does surfing resemble aspects of the veterans’ military experience?

Caddick: Yes and no. There are two sides to surfing that offer subtly different ways to benefit from the experience. The one everybody thinks about is the adrenaline rush a person gets from catching a wave and riding it into shore as it rumbles and tumbles around you. The veterans I worked with during the research certainly enjoyed this rush and it seemed to provide them with an excitement that has been missing from their lives since they left the forces. On the other hand, there is a much calmer, gentler side to surfing that the veterans experienced as thoroughly relaxing. Some of the guys explicitly related to this experience as a kind of floating meditation, others simply spoke of the calming and relaxing feelings it provided them with.

RG: You found PTSD relief is localized to the veterans’ time in the water and “adverse emotional effects” occur between surfs. What type of emotions do they experience and how is this managed?

Caddick: Several of the veterans I spoke to were adamant that the emotional benefits of surfing stopped the moment they left the water. They talked about going from a real ‘high’ back down to a crushing ‘low’ when the surfing had finished – feeling emotionally empty and longing for the feelings of respite to return. This was the one difficult aspect of a form of ‘therapy’ that appeared time-limited. None of the veterans felt that this was enough of a reason not to go surfing, but it did create challenges for them in regards to how they would sustain their well-being in between surfs.

Image courtesy of Peter Garelick.