TEDxUCLA 2014: Open 2.0

Surfing: infinite possibilities to heal


About Carly

Carly M. Rogers, OTD, OTR/L is an ocean lifeguard, occupational therapist and surfer utilizing surfing as a therapeutic medium to heal. Rogers has been the Director of Programs for the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation since 2005. In this role, she oversees and coordinates a therapeutic surfing program titled Ocean Therapy, which she created while earning her master’s degree in occupational Therapy at USC (MA 2004).


Have you ever asked yourself why they run?

So many of us can visualize this image of a man running with his surfboard under his arm in his wetsuit. Many of you are thinking, “Where is that guy going?” Some of you are even seeing a girl run across the street on your morning commute.

This is something that I see every day as a Southern California native. But there’s people running to waves in Germany in rivers. There’s people jumping off cliffs in Australia. There’s even people traveling through icebergs to what, to surf? To catch a wave? It’s this incredible sport of surfing that drives them.

There’s a psychologist and theorist named Csikszentmihalyi who describes the theory of flow. Flow is your pure natural engagement with an activity where nothing else seems to matter. You were completely in the moment. Surfing has this at its core.

Now there are countless interpretations as to the therapeutic and healing qualities of the ocean. We can look to the physiological, the medicinal, we can look to the energy of the ocean and others. We can even look back far enough that there are countless civilizations based on the power of the ocean, like the Hawaiians and the Maori in New Zealand.

My exploration started 15 years ago as a Los Angeles County lifeguard. We were working on the beach, taking inner-city kids to the beach for surfing, some with special needs, and we were gonna teach them about ocean safety.

A young boy was wheeled onto the sand in his wheelchair and he started crawling and moving and trying to get out. I could barely get his seat belt off. And he dove out into the water, out into the sand and started crawling towards the water. Instantly, as it does now, my skin lit up and I said, “Oh, my gosh, we have to take these kids surfing.”

After that experience, I started volunteering and working with individuals with disabilities or illness, and I found the field of occupational therapy. Occupational therapy takes aspects of psychology and physical rehabilitation with the main goal of using their intrinsic motivation to inspire them back to the activities or occupations that make them who they are.

Like taking an individual with a spinal cord injury and teaching them how to drive again, or even taking a child with cerebral palsy and getting them into the ocean in a chance of inspiring improved sensory motor or mental health.

Now, after this, I was in school at USC in my master’s program and I was fortunately asked to create a community-based program. And the first thing I said was, “I have this idea for therapeutic surfing!”

As I conceptualized the intervention, I knew that there would obviously be surfing and there would have to be one-on-one instruction with supportive volunteers. There also was gonna be a discussion session where we could really hone in on, hone in on the benefits of what was transpiring in the water.

But then I needed a goal. What was the goal of the program? Was it just to learn to serve? No, it was so much more than that. And I thought about that child in his wheelchair. And as he dove out of that wheelchair, it was self-efficacy in its purest form, what Albert Bandura describes as our personal belief in our ability to achieve a goal.

Now I want to take you on a self-efficacy ride. You’re going to experience somebody’s very first wave. So most of us are going to come down to the beach and we’re gonna see this incredible expanse of ocean and you’re going to be intimidated by it. It’s warranted. It’s a very powerful place. But there you are on your surfboard and they’re telling you to push up, you’re just on land and you’re figuring out what’s going on. Then you’re so nervous, but you look to your instructor and they have this confidence in their eyes, that everything’s gonna be okay.

Next, as you enter the water, waves are pushing you back, but something is driving you out there. It draws you in. You’re going up and down over waves, they’re hitting you in the face, but you get out there and you feel it rinsing you off, whatever is on land is behind you. Your instructor turns you around and you’re holding onto the board and you can’t even see what’s coming, but you hear the sound of the waves. Then you start to feel the momentum and it’s pushing you forward. And then your instructor yells, “Stand up!” and there you are, feeling it. You’re completely in the moment once again. You’re flowing. Obviously, as volunteers, very excited.

Now, this is where ocean therapy began. And it was first coordinated with the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation, which is where it is today, and started with children that are disadvantaged or those in the foster care community. We saw incredible results there.

But in 2006, a mentor and friend, Steve Chabre, had the idea to take this program to Camp Pendleton for our returning men and women from Iraq and Afghanistan. He said, “I think this might be able to rinse off the symptoms of PTSD.”

After a year of deliberation, we found ourselves on the beach at Camp Pendleton with the Wounded Warrior Battalion. I was incredibly nervous. What are they going to think of a bunch of surfers in wetsuits? We all can imagine the stereotypes.

They came down, though, but the first thing I noticed as a therapist was that their eyes were looking down. Their affect was closed. There was no eye contact. They were removed and there was there was this distance there that was palpable. And then slowly we get them into the water, one, two, three waves caught, and they’re claiming it. These big, strong Marines are just, they’re excited and they’re laughing and you see smiles.

We came back to the discussion session afterwards and you could see the wheels turning in their minds. Finally, one of them said, “This could save my life. This, I feel finally alive.” The next one said, “Oh my gosh, I haven’t laughter felt so good in forever. This is incredible. Who knew surfing could be so therapeutic?”

There was one other friend who, he’s trying to get out through the waves, they kept pushing him back, we worked as a team and he got out the back, and he started splashing the water and he says, “This is curing my PTSD.” And Marines don’t talk! They’re not supposed to talk about these things, and here, with this surfing, they were feeling it.

Now I went back to school to study the effects of the program, but it was actually a TEDx coordinator that first asked me, “Do you think the experience of surfing is the complete opposite of PTSD?” And I said, “Actually, yes.”

The three main symptoms of PTSD, the first is isolation of avoidance of preferred activities. The second is a re-experiencing of the trauma in the form of flashbacks and nightmares. The trauma never leaves them. The third is a hyper-arousal or hyper-vigilance where they’re constantly in a state of fight or flight.

Now in surfing, instead of avoidance, it’s complete engagement. Your senses are aware, your body’s aware, you’re present. And then instead of re-experiencing the trauma, like I said you’re completely present in the moment. So many of our participants say “I wasn’t thinking about anything but being here in the water.”

Now, the third is hyper-arousal. Of course there’s adrenaline rush with surfing. But as one Marine participant stated so poignantly, he said, “In combat you wait and you wait and then you engage in an intense firefight fighting for your life. But in surfing, you wait and you wait and then you engage in a pure natural adrenaline rush. I never knew how beautiful Mother Nature could be.”

So now, along with colleagues at USC and the West LA V.A., I was able to complete a research study, we were able to complete a research study, with our returning veterans. And what we found was they had decreased self-reported symptoms of PTSD and depression. We also had really prominent attendance rates where 75 percent of the participants traveled 20 miles to attend and came to three or more sessions.

Now, the goal of the program isn’t so much that every one of our participants is going to become a surfer. We know that it’s not going to be a lifelong passion for everyone. But if that board and bringing their eyes up to balance just opens their perspective a little bit wider and that self-efficacy emerges in the fact of, “I did it. What else can I do?” Then that’s the goal.

Many of our participants in the research study said that they had returned to their mental health appointments. Some of them were re-engaging in programs with their wives. Others had connected with substance abuse programs. They had the idea that they needed help.

Now, ocean therapy is just one concept of therapeutic surfing. There’s actually programs for those with cystic fibrosis and those on the autism spectrum, those who have lost limbs and those with spinal cord injuries. There’s programs in Spain and Portugal, there’s even a program in Germany but surfing in France, where Iraq and Afghanistan refugees are surfing to deal with their PTSD.

Now, many of you are saying, I don’t live near an ocean. How does this pertain to me? Well, there’s so many countless opportunities for you too. There’s surfing in rivers, and stand-up paddling on lakes, there’s riverboarding — which I didn’t know existed — in Montana, and there’s rafting, too. Traditional paddling and stand-up paddling are sweeping across the country and give you that opportunity to get outside.

Now remember my friend that was saying, “This is curing my PTSD?” I asked him afterwards, what else assists with your PTSD? And he said fly fishing, playing guitar, and now surfing. Music and nature. Don’t we all go to music and nature to support us in our lives and find balance? Maybe we need to inspire them to get outdoors.

There’s so many opportunities like mountain biking and rock climbing and skiing. Fortunately, there’s organizations like the Sierra Club that are given large grants currently to study the effects of the outdoors on our physical and mental health.

Now my closing thought for you is all of us have something that we’re passionate about that drives us, or that we run to. But there’s also, we all know somebody that’s in a state of need. Maybe they have an injury, maybe they’ve lost a loved one, and maybe it will be beneficial to get them outside. And now, never forget, as that one Marine said, how beautiful Mother Nature can be. Thank you.