How surfing helped me kick anxiety’s ass: 4 ways it changed my life

Surfing and mindfulness

Over the last couple of years, scientific research (“the science of stoke”) has shown that surfing significantly improves people’s moods and self-esteem and that it reduces suffering. I can tell you one thing, I think they’re right.

My first panic attack

When I had my first panic attack, I thought I was going crazy. I thought I’d lost my mind and would never get it back.

I was 20 and it was the day after a heavy night out. I was watching TV on my own at night when suddenly I lost myself.

It seemed as if I was falling away out of my body as if I no longer knew who I was; the only thing I felt was pure fear. My heart was beating like crazy and I was sweating like I was a maniac starring Flashdance.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t even breathe normally.

The rest of the night I spent sweating in bed, afraid that I would never feel normal again.

What is a panic attack?

According to the ADAA, a panic attack is an “abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms: Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate. Sweating. Trembling or shaking. Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering”.

Panic attacks can be psychosomatic, they can be genetically induced by stimuli or by thoughts.

Whatever the reason, they are anything but pleasant.

They can cause severe anticipatory anxiety, where you get a panic attack simply because you’re afraid to get one.

It took me six months to get back to my old self. Of course, I didn’t talk to anyone about it, what if people thought I was crazy?!

Six years later it happened again. But this time I decided to seek help. I found a great psychotherapist who showed me that a panic attack is just a feeling. And like a feeling, it can come AND go.

What the reason was for my anxiety? Well, there can be many reasons, but I’m pretty sure that the emotional stress I didn’t want to deal with concerning the death of my father, the stupid amount of alcohol I drank at the many parties I went to, the careerpath I wasn’t happy with, my mild eating disorder (not really, but close enough. Once, I spit out a candy so I had the taste in my mouth, without the calories in my body), and the lack of regular sport in my life had something to do with it.

This all changed when I learned to surf nine years ago. For the first time, I found something that I was so completely obsessed with, that I changed my whole lifestyle for it.

1. Surfing gets me out of my mind and into my body

How surfing helps reduce anxiety

There’s something about being in the water that is just as refreshing for your body as for your mind. For me, water really heals everything.

Surfing makes people live in the moment. Like, literally. You’re on a wave, and that’s the only thing you CAN think about at that moment.

“Is the lip gonna smash my head in?”, “Am I involuntarily gonna make out with the reef again?”, “Did my insurance cover fin cuts?” Other than that, no thoughts.

But seriously though, being on a wave is the BEST feeling in the world. It’s more than just dancing on the water.

It’s the ultimate feeling of both freedom and connection. Freedom from your mind. Connection to your body.

And when you’re IN your body, all the bullshit in your mind just shuts off. That’s called Mindfulness

I remember with my first anxiety attack – when I was sweating like a maniac in my bed -, that I had a brief moment of what I now know was mindfulness.

For just a couple of seconds, I became aware of how my bedsheets and the wind through the window felt on my skin. I was totally connected to my body and my surroundings. For just that moment, the panic was gone.

2. Surfing connects me to nature

Surfing and mindfulness
Photo: Quinten Jacobs

Not only does surfing connect me to my body, it also connects me to nature. Nature has such a positive influence on our health, it’s mental.

When you’re in nature – whether that’s an ocean, a mountain or a forest -, feelings of anger, fear and stress are significantly lower. Being in nature reduces your blood pressure, heart rate and decreases your stress hormones (unless a bear is chasing you for dinner).

One of the causes of anxiety is stress. So a GOOD way to deal with this is to just go for a surf, a run, a hike, or whatever you can do to get yourself in nature.

3. Surfing introduced me to yoga

How surfing helps reduce anxiety

When I started surfing, I didn’t live close to the beach, so I had to come up with something to keep my surf-fitness level strong while I was out of the water.

Somehow I found these ‘Yoga for Surfers’ videos from a Californian woman doing yoga at the beach. I wasn’t that spiritual, so these down-to-earth videos were just perfect.

I began doing yoga more regularly, I eventually did a yoga teacher training and now I do yoga EVERY day. To me, surfing and yoga belong together.

Because even though surfing has become as important as breathing to me, it’s not always that relaxing.

Certainly not when you’re a woman who surfs in crowded spots where you have to ‘compete’ with 60 semi-professional dudes who may explode from testosterone at any moment.

Yoga is therefore just as important to keep my cool.

And it’s because of meditation and breath exercises that I now know how to calm myself down whenever I feel anxious or stressed.

Actually, yoga’s taught me to see anxiety more as a sign of my body that something’s wrong.

Anxiety just shows me that I have too much stress in my life and I need to change something.

So, that way, I kinda learned to befriend my anxiety. It’s an ugly friend, but a friend nonetheless.

4. Surfing made me move to Bali

surfing and mindfulness
Photo: Quinten Jacobs

I’m a Dutch surfer. Who, during her teens and twenties, suffered from mild winter depressions.

Bali is nice and warm. And it has good waves.

1 + 1 = 2.

It’s an understatement to say I don’t like cold weather. So what better choice did I have to go live on an island where you can surf in bikini every single day?

The sun actually does have a positive influence on our mental health. 

Sunlight is believed to increase our serotonin levels, which is a hormone that makes us happy, calm and focused.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I don’t experience stress here. I still have work to do, I still go through emotional rollercoasters like so many of us do. I can still get stressed.

BUT, I haven’t had a panic attack in more than 4 years.

Because four years ago, my passionobsessionaddiction for surfing made me choose my own path. It made me choose a path of waves, less stress, mindfulness, yoga, a freelancing career, doing what I love, travel and a healthy lifestyle.

And I’m still beyond grateful for that.

 

Want to learn more about how surfing can make you ZEN?

Check out these life-changing books. Even if you don’t surf, they’re a total trip.

 

 

Have you ever had to deal with anxiety or a panic attack? Let me know in the comments.

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