Surf Therapy and its Mental Health Benefits with Surf House Dubai

I recently came across the term ‘surf therapy,’ championed by UK surf therapy charity The Wave Project and its 6,000-strong network of volunteers. I am keen to hear more about similar mental health initiatives here in the UAE, so I sat down with Daniel van Dooren, Co Founder and COO of Surf House Dubai to talk about the mental health benefits of surfing. My first question for Dan is simply to describe the feelings that surfing brings about for him personally. He replies: “Peace, adrenaline, excitement, at one (being in the moment), meditation, and being connected to nature.” Isn’t it interesting that an activity that gives us an adrenaline rush can also make us feel very much at peace and we are taken into a meditative state through action, through movement, through a connection to something greater. It’s certainly something to think about.

“So what is ‘surf therapy?’ I ask Dan. “Surf therapy is connecting with nature, something that is gifted to us naturally. Going back to something this basic just relieves us of all our mental stressors. Surfing is a great tool for that, you get out into the water – it’s just you, your board and the waves, and there’s nothing more pure than that.” And I couldn’t agree more; it’s that sense of grounding, of being at one with a force much greater than us, a natural element that provides a tangible boost and endorphin rush, a medium that strips away social constructs, removes us from the hustle of our daily lives and disconnects us from our digital lives.

Like anything new, there is always going to be a level of discomfort, a fear of the unknown, and that is very much part of the process. The idea of this form of therapy is that it is empowering in its ability to test you, to challenge your doubts and your willingness to overcome them by physically connecting with nature. “Some people have a fear of the water, but the only way to overcome the fear is to go and do it,” says Dan. The process works gradually, as you become more in tune with the waves, more in tune with yourself and how you use this process to create the space you need in your own journey of discovery and healing.

Surf House Dubai has partnered with Shore Thing Surf Therapy, a local non-profit initiative founded in 2021 by Paula Jacobson – contributing to the global efforts of the International Surf Therapy Organisation (ISTO). The goal is to raise awareness of the effectiveness of sea therapy in healing and enabling recovery from issues such as PTSD, anxiety and depression. Paula says, “From my lived experience, I wanted to focus on adults suffering from depression, trauma, loneliness and isolation. While it is a wonderful place, Dubai can be exhausting and isolating, and I wanted to create a community to alleviate mental health issues while focusing on the plight of the ocean.” Surf therapy leans into the science of Blue Mind Theory – the mildly meditative state we succumb to when near to, in, on, and under the water. It’s the idea of swimming as active meditation, in that it affects you both physically and psychologically, and so the term Blue Mind is used in association with the state of ‘water-associated peace,’ combining water science with neuroscience. Paula explains her assessment process: “I capture data through surveys: intake forms and pre- and post-event surveys. The surveys track (anonymously) data such as emotions and thought processes throughout the journey, providing information as to the effect spending time in, near, or on water has on the participants of my events and sessions.” This form of therapeutic treatment has been used for the past 10 years in the UK, and is recognised by the NHS in the treatment of mental ill-health, and is also used by the Police and emergency services in the UK as therapy for its staff. Paula says, “My goals are to work with the government and insurance companies to offer surf/sea therapy as a form of therapy that’s covered by insurance schemes and also sponsored by the government.”

Working closely with Shore Thing, the team at Surf House Dubai provides the platform and experience to create a motivating, safe and supportive space, building on their ever-growing community of surf enthusiasts. Surf House is very much involved in initiatives with groups of determination in the region, and has been for some time; this collaboration is a great way to further build on the education piece around the physical and mental health benefits of surfing, and to encourage more people to get in the water and experience the sport for themselves. The education piece is what’s important here – in delving deeper into the human connection to the ocean, into the physiological and psychological effects, gathering tangible data because so much is still so undiscovered. “The ocean is more than 70% of the earth, and they’ve probably discovered 10% of it,” says Dan. And maybe the same goes for understanding and uncovering its effects on our bodies too.

Dan talks about his morning routine, his daily ritual which involves a dip in the ocean, whatever the season. He says, “I think if I didn’t have that morning routine, I wouldn’t be as productive as I am at work, I wouldn’t be as socially interactive; I just feel like I wouldn’t have started my day right.” Next time you spend an afternoon by the beach, or you search for that idyllic beach getaway, think about how it makes you feel and why you enjoy spending your time in the presence of the ocean, and I can guarantee that most people feel the same way about it.

To get involved, you can reach out to the team at Surf House Dubai, or contact Shore Thing directly to join the community, through social media channels or their respective websites. Or just pop into Surf House Dubai and go direct to the source!

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