In December 2020, I felt the joy of standing on a surfboard and gliding on a wave for the first time. I remember the feeling crystal clear; the wind was blowing through my hair, and I felt invincible. It’s difficult to accurately describe the sensation, since I believe that the feeling of surfing cannot be articulated; it can only be felt. It is by far one of the most exhilarating sports that I have engaged in and always leaves me coming back for more. 

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a monstrous impact on my mental health and increased my anxiety twofold. I know I am not alone – this is an experience people worldwide are living through. During the height of the pandemic, I was living in Austria, working full-time and completing my honors degree in Psychology. COVID-19 and the related lockdown restrictions took away many of the things I loved the most about Austria and Europe itself; the musical culture, the food, the art, the wine, and the socializing. At this point I could speak a little German, which was enough to maintain a basic level of conversation, but I was not fluent. As a result, there were many occasions where I was unable to communicate with people effectively. I was able to clearly see that the COVID-19 pandemic increased my reliance on social support, and I was able to identify that when times are difficult, having a close group of friends and family members can serve as a protective factor against adversity. The pandemic also highlighted the importance of having social health. A study carried out found that the risk of developing severe levels of depression was 63% lower among individuals who reported higher levels of social support compared to those with lower perceived social support. 

Many of my Austrian friends and my former partner could find that support within their communities, but I felt more and more isolated and estranged from the country as time passed. All the things that initially distracted me from my ‘‘foreign identity’’ in Austria were taken away from me due to the restrictions, and so I was left with myself. When I visited my family and friends in South Africa after two years of being based in Austria, it felt good to reconnect with my culture and the people I grew up with. I found a new sense of pride for my country and the people who live there. When I tried surfing for the first time, I instantly knew that I had found something which could bring me fulfillment. When leaving South Africa, I would usually walk to the airport’s departure lounge fizzing with excitement and looking forward to a new adventure, but this time something was different: my heart wanted to stay. Twenty hours later, I arrived in Vienna, stepped outside the metro station, and walked into the city. I already knew that I needed to get back to Cape Town to continue surfing. After two months of mulling over the question of whether I could really afford the trip, I bought my ticket to Cape Town and booked a short-term rental apartment in Muizenberg, which was located a perfect five-minute walk from the beach. This is where my surfing journey began.

My Surf Journey 

During the first four weeks, I participated in weekly group classes, but after a month, I realized that all I needed to do was get out there every day and practice, practice, practice. Come rain, hail, or shine, I was out there! After a  month, I was surfing broken waves with more confidence than before, and I was narrowing down my board size. The next challenge facing me was to get to the backline and start riding what they call ‘‘clean’’ green waves. Green waves are unbroken waves that have the right amount of steepness for the surfer to paddle and catch a ride on. Broken waves, in contrast, are waves that are at their last stage and result in white water. These often give the surfer additional power to push forward and stand on the surfboard, meaning that these broken white water waves are the easiest to catch when you are a beginner surfer. 

The Backline 

When you’re just starting out surfing, paddling to the backline can be a serious physical challenge. The backline is an area that’s the ideal distance from the shore with a greater likelihood of catching green waves. Paddling to the backline tests your fitness in ways you’d never think possible, because you are constantly working your arms and swimming against the waves. This means it’s also usually better suited to intermediate to advanced surfers. In the beginning, it was incredibly difficult to master this skill. My surfer friends encouraged me to start doing daily-push ups in order to improve my arm strength, a piece of valuable advice that definitely worked. However, paddling to the backline wasn’t only a test of my physical strength; developing the confidence to do so challenged me mentally too. I was afraid to paddle to the backline because of my fear of sharks, and I was apprehensive about hurting myself with my surfboard. Confronting my fears and pinpointing the source of my irrational beliefs about myself and the ocean put my mental capacities to the test.  A few times, I went out surfing with a friend who would motivate me to surf to the backline; I would always stop midway and give up because I felt I wasn’t strong enough or because I was intimidated by the size of the waves coming towards me. 

But, then one day, I felt the motivation and determination rise up inside me and take over. I was confident that my stamina was good enough to endure the paddle to the backline, and I went for it. When I rode my first clean unbroken wave, it was even better than the first time I learned how to surf. Riding a clean wave is the epitome of what it means to be one with nature. My experience with surfing is closely connected to that of soul surfers, who regard surfing as a meaningful and spiritual practice. Although I don’t take a religious approach to surfing, I certainly have experienced immense psychological and spiritual healing through this sport. I’m not alone; there’s also a large body of evidence that indicates a positive relationship between exposure to natural environments and wellbeing. 

 A lot of people that I’ve met from the surfing community have told me that what they like the most about this sport is the unpredictability of it all; not every wave is the same, and not every surf session is a repeat of yesterday. It has its own voice and will spit you out when it senses imbalance. Knowing this makes the feeling of accomplishment so much more worthwhile. Standing up and feeling acceptance from the ocean,  a force to be reckoned with – there’s nothing that comes close. I have been surfing regularly for five months now, and I can see and feel myself progressing every single day. This would not have been possible without the help and support of my surfer friends. Every day I wake up feeling grateful that I found this community and this gem of a town. 

I’ll be traveling to Europe soon and then returning to Cape Town at the end of the year, where I intend to take surfing more seriously and dedicate myself even more towards excelling at this sport. Regardless of whether you want to go down the professional route, become a free surfer, maintain your fitness, or simply have fun with friends, this sport can satisfy your needs. So far, surfing has had three valuable influences on my life and my wellbeing; it taught me the importance of resilience, improved my mental health, and interlinked with these, had an impact on the way I deal with life’s challenges. 

How Surfing Has Made Me More Resilient 

Resilience can be defined as the process of being able to adapt well when faced with adversity, trauma, stress, or other sources of distress. Through surfing, I have learned all about the power of resilience, and how it is an essential ingredient when working towards a goal and striving for success. As I mentioned previously, one of the most challenging aspects of surfing was paddling to the backline. Surfing, standing up on the board; those things are difficult too, but it takes a high level of determination to paddle against broken waves when they are pushing against you. 

But why is it important to have resilience? 

Resilient people have the ability to endure life’s challenges and possess the strength to overcome and bounce back from any hardships. In life, we’re always going to encounter difficulties and problems that need to be solved. Our quality of life can be determined by the attitude we have towards it. Being capable of facing our problems head-on, equipped with a resilient attitude can prepare us for future problems that appear down the line. 

Mental Health: Anxiety       

Like many others around the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on my mental health; I felt depressed, anxious, and isolated. My decision to go back to Cape Town and learn how to surf was a decision I made for my wellbeing. In Muizenberg, there were a number of times that I felt anxious and stressed as a result of work issues and personal problems,  but instead of ruminating on my troubles, I grabbed my surfboard and treated myself to some ocean therapy. I would only have to be in the water for a short time before I would begin to feel more relaxed and experience a strong sense of calm.  The idea that surfing presents itself as an effective therapeutic pathway in youth interventions was explored and proven in a study. The participants in the study reported that surfing offered them a sense of distraction and lent them a feeling of escape from distressing thoughts. 

Surfing requires a high level of focus, because you need to be observant enough to know when it is the right time to catch a decent wave. There are four stages of the wave; Stage B (Stage 2) is the ideal stage you want, as this is where the wave is steep enough to catch a green wave. This level of concentration results in you channeling all of your energy and attention to the present moment.  You end up thinking less about the problems you had before you started surfing because now you’re only focused on surviving. I wholeheartedly believe that surfing is therapeutic, and here I advocate for its application in mental health rehabilitation programs. One of the biggest projects existing is “The Wave Project,” a program that has already supported more than 4,800 children with physical, mental, or social issues, through surfing. 

 So, to sum it up, what are the holistic health benefits of surfing?

The benefits of surfing for our wellbeing can include:

It has been found that surf therapy results in individuals experiencing positive effects in areas of their lives, like self-exploration, perseverance, problem-solving, time management, interpersonal competencies, and emotional regulation. The benefits I personally reaped were healthy weight maintenance, improved confidence, and reduced stress and anxiety. Surfing has also encouraged me to live a healthier lifestyle in order to improve my surf performance. Through nurturing my love for riding the waves, I have learned what’s important in life and that when we are psychologically balanced, we can be balanced with the tides of the ocean too. 

“We all come from the sea, but we are not all of the sea. Those of us who are, we children of the tides, must return to it again and again, until the day we don’t come back leaving behind only that which was touched along the way.”