How Surfing Eases Effects of Brain Damage

May 25, 2023

In a happy coincidence with the recent SA Para Surf Champs at Muizenberg, recent research at Swansea University shows that surfing can help people with with brain injuries to live more engaged and meaningful lives.

In addition to physical impairments, acquired brain injury can cause difficulties with processing information, regulating emotions and socialising. Many people with brain injuries can struggle to return to work or engage in exercise and can start to feel isolated. Critically, they don’t always have the confidence or connections required to engage with their local communities.

Academics at Swansea University Katie Gibbs (Research and Innovation Assistant and PhD Student of Psychology), Andrew Kemp (Professor and Personal Chair), and Zoe Fisher (Consultant Clinical Psychologist)
have been working with a team of psychologists across different Welsh health boards to help survivors overcome these barriers and have studied the effects.

During their research, they teamed up with Surfability UK, a surf school that aims to make the activity as inclusive as possible to disabled people. It offers adapted wetsuits, longer boards, beach buggies and developed the world’s first tandem seated surfboard to support those with mobility issues, including people with acquired brain injuries.

They followed up by interviewing 15 patients who have undertaken surfing sessions as part of the neuro-rehabilitation programme run by the Swansea Bay and Hywel Dda university health boards to learn more about their experiences.

They found that providing brain injury survivors with an opportunity to immerse themselves in the dynamic elements of the tide, wind and sea can have a huge impact on their mental health and wellbeing. It enabled participants to reconnect with the outside world and feel respite from the everyday stressors of modern life.

A participant in the SA Para Surf Champs on the weekend. Image Greg Chapman

Connecting people to nature has previously been shown to improve wellbeing and promote an appreciation of the environment. But their patients reported some particular benefits to surfing.

In contrast to gardening, for example, one of the participants who shared their experiences described surf therapy as something which “doesn’t stay still”. It’s something which is constantly evolving – falling off the board is a part of the learning process. This can be uncomfortable and distressing at first, but persevering can often lead to feeling a sense of achievement.

Some of their participants reported that surfing had taught them all types of emotions – positive or negative – an important part of the human experience. Instead of trying to control them, accepting them can help people find meaning. Making room for difficult thoughts enabled some of brain injury survivors to reconnect with their values and hobbies too. Surfing gave them meaning and a “valid reason for being alive”.

How Surfing Eases Effects of Brain Damage
Surfing gave them meaning and a valid reason for being alive.

It also showed them that “despite being a bit broken in some places,” they were still capable people. This helped them to renegotiate their identity.

Connecting with people in similar situations can also be crucial after brain injury. Many report that they don’t feel understood by family and friends. Yet belonging is a basic psychological need.

Being part of a group enabled their brain injury survivors to learn there were other people with similar experiences. They were able to create a network where they could share resources and experiences to help each other. The seated tandem surfboard allows people who cannot sit unaided to participate in surfing.

The purpose of therapy is to induce sustained and meaningful change after brain injury. Along with immediate improvements in fitness, balance and coordination, their follow-up research found patients continued engaging in outdoor physical activity for up to ten months later.

Some stuck with surfing, while others took up paddleboarding or cold-water swimming. Research suggetss taking part in purposefully designed water-based activities can generate a similar sense of wellbeing as surfing.

Their research underlines how the power of the sea can offer patients benefits which typical clinical settings do not provide.