Surf Therapy

The euphoria of time spent in saltwater and sand isn’t just for vacationers. Psychologist, Dr. Lena Dicken, is the brains (and beauty) behind Saltwater Sessions, a resilience-based therapy that takes place in – you guessed it – the ocean. Learn about this unique and powerful healing modality, plus a few life-lessons we can learn from it without ever stepping into the sea…

Surf Therapy

Q: Tell us about surf therapy in a nutshell…

A: I started Saltwater Sessions because I saw there was incredible potential for a new type of resilience-based therapy, which could be channeled through surfing. Life can be beautiful, awe inspiring and full of adventure and growth. It can also be frustrating, challenging and filled with ups and downs. Surfing also has the ability to be all of these things. Saltwater Sessions uses therapeutic principles mixed with mindfulness practice to help our participants learn to manage stress levels, improve emotional communication and increase endurance for getting through challenging situations.

Humans are hardwired to react positively to water. If you think about it, most of us flock to rivers, lakes and oceans when we want to relax and recharge. Spending time in nature affects our exhausted frontal lobe (which is responsible for planning and executive functions) by giving it a break. While the frontal lobe is relaxed, other parts of the brain that allow for pleasure and empathy can take the drivers seat.

Our brains and our nervous systems adapt to how we fill our days. If our days are filled with traffic, deadlines and emails, and we never take a break to let ourselves relax and let our minds be still, when we try, it feels impossible. By training our brains to calm down on a regular basis, it eventually feels normal and natural. People begin to crave it. But only after it has become a habit and our brains have adapted by creating new neural pathways. Many people quit meditation prematurely because it’s very challenging at first and they don’t give themselves adequate time to let their brains adapt.

During sessions we spend equal time on our surfboards and on the sand. We discuss challenges we’re facing and how we relate to them. We go surf, and we take stock of all the feelings and emotions that come up in the water, then we process them back on the sand. Most of us think our fears are unique to us and that everyone else has it all together. This couldn’t be farther than the truth, and the group processing part of the program helps us understand this and not feel so alone. Through shared challenge, our participants also go through a bonding experience which helps us connect with others.

Surf Therapy

Q: Lena, you started your career far from the sand and surf wax. Tell us how you redirected your work to the beach.

A: I grew up on the East Coast but lived in Hawaii for several years in my twenties. I picked up surfing while living there, and it really changed everything. I had always loved the water and have been very active throughout my life, but through surfing I found a sense of strength, personal empowerment and joy that was completely new to me. I learned to surf on the north shore of Kauai and would get tossed around day after day. I was terrible at surfing for a long time, but I was completely addicted to the way I felt in the water and how I felt for the rest of my day afterwards. Over time I got the hang of it and went on to live, surf and travel through Mexico, Central America, Europe and Southeast Asia. Surfing gave me a pair of wings, which I credit to giving me the stamina to complete seven years of graduate school and weather the ups and downs of starting a business.

During my graduate training I interned at CLARE Foundation in Santa Monica, which is a low cost community addiction treatment center. The clinical director found out I was a surfer and asked me to create a therapeutic surfing program. I decided to channel the ways surfing had helped me into a program that could be used to help others. Along with creating the curriculum for the program, I concurrently decided to write a manual-based dissertation, which was a requirement for my doctoral program. I completed the manual and piloted the program, and I got a great response. My clinical director, dissertation chair and mentor all encouraged me to keep running the program after I completed my internship, and eventually it just made sense to turn it into a business. I still run the program through a few addiction centers throughout the area, but my main focus has turned to programs geared towards the general public.

Surf Therapy

Q: Your work first began as an addiction-facing therapy. Why is surfing such a fit here?

A: To say maintaining sobriety is hard is an understatement. It’s the reason addiction is currently a major health crisis in the United States. If a person is able to maintain sobriety for five years, they have an 86% chance of holding on to their sobriety for the rest of their lives. However, the initial stages of sobriety are the hardest. In the early stages, a person must learn to manage the difficult emotions that often lead them to feeling the need to numb out from the difficult parts of their lives.

When a person goes into addiction treatment, their curriculum often consists of various forms of psychotherapy, along with yoga, meditation and various other activities. It’s rare that any of these activities bring up intense feelings of failure and frustration that surfing can often elicit. These feelings are precisely the feelings that make someone want to give up on their sobriety.

By processing these feelings with others in a group setting, one feels less alone. And by sticking with the program for the intended eight weeks, one can see themselves progressing and getting better at something that at first seemed impossible.  Learning to surf is a potent metaphor for treating addiction. If someone feels less alone and sticks with something that feels challenging at first but gets easier, they have a powerful experience to fall back on when they might be thinking about falling back into old habits that they know won’t serve the life they want to be living. Surfing also produces a powerful rush of neurochemicals – including oxytocin, endorphins and dopamine, which have positive effects in the treatment of stress, anxiety and depression – which in turn have been shown to be highly comorbid with substance abuse and addiction.

Surf Therapy

Q: Please share 3-5 reasons surf therapy is so unique and so impactful:

A: Few activities have the ability to be equal parts challenging, enriching, humbling and fun at once. For many, surfing goes beyond sport and often leads to a more fulfilling, uplifting and meaningful life. Surfing is an ideal practice for supporting long-term mental and physical health. Lessons learned in the water become skills for increasing emotional intelligence, since the challenges of surfing mirror many of the challenges and stressors we face in relationships and in daily life.

Surf Therapy

Q: Which 3 qualities are strengthened through surf that you find invaluable for you and for your clients?

A: The first would be tenacity. To come back week after week or day after day and try something that might have felt new and uncomfortable initially, leads us to be more likely to try new things in the future and push through the discomfort that comes with not being good at something.

The second quality would be the ability to be in the present moment. There’s a saying, ‘Only a surfer knows the feeling,’ that conveys the completely unique experience of riding a moving wave in the ocean. Repeated exposure to this experience increases one’s desire to spend more time in the present moment, where the richness of life really exists.

The last quality is the ability to face our fears. While some people are afraid of the ocean in general, others happily dive right in. However, a surfer can spend a lifetime improving their skills and seeking ever more challenging and bigger waves. When you’re in the habit of facing your fears, they suddenly don’t seem so intimidating.

Q: Talk to us about the upcoming workshops/class offerings!

A: We have workshops coming up in March and April on the beaches of Los Angeles. We also have a five-day retreat coming up in May in Waikiki, quite possibly the best place to learn to surf on the planet.

Q: Have a favorite quote that comes to mind on all of this?


“Fall seven times, stand up eight.” – Japanese proverb

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