Healing Veterans Through Surfing - AOTA Everyday Evidence

Listen to the AOTA Everyday Evidence Podcast on Healing Through Surfing to the right or listen to the podcast on Stitcher.

Carly Rogers, OTD, OTR/L, is the lead author of a new study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy (AJOT). Read the study here: High-Intensity Sports for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Depression: Feasibility Study of Ocean Therapy With Veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.


Stephanie Yamkovenko: A day at the beach. It’s something many of us would like this time of year. And for some veterans, spending a day at the beach is having a healing effect.

An estimated one fifth of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, and some believe that even this number underestimates the true prevalence of the disorder.

An occupational therapist in California is finding that the beach and surfing can help heal PTSD and depression symptoms. Carly Rogers explains:

Carly Rogers: You know when you look at the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder there’s avoidance, there’s a hyperarousal, there’s a re-experiencing of the trauma. And with each of those three areas of symptoms, they affect daily life. I had a veteran that I worked with who was injured because he was racing his motorcycle when he got home trying to get that adrenaline rush. Many of them their current occupations were: drinking, going to the bar, or staying home with doors locked, playing video games. Okay, wait a second. We need to get you outside. We need to get you participating in life again.

Yamkovenko: There are many aspects of surfing that are similar to military culture – you have to be physically fit, you’re facing a challenge in an unpredictable environment, and the adrenaline rush of dropping down the face of a wave.

Rogers: When we were first developing this program, some of the doctors in the military said this is too dangerous for them. But then when you look at the other activities that they’re engaging in, they want that rush and surfing is going to be a lot more safe than speeding on the motorcycle. I think my favorite quote is from one marine. He said, “You know in combat you wait and you wait and then you engage in this intense firefight. And then in surfing, you wait and you wait and then you engage in this pure natural adrenaline rush.” He’s like, “I never knew how beautiful mother nature could be.”

Yamkovenko: The Ocean Therapy program consists of several weekly sessions that include surfing lessons, focused group processing, and a lunch with a group discussion.

Rogers: One of the key process elements we discuss is community. And by going out surfing, you feel that elation. You feel that adrenaline. Many participants say, “Oh my gosh. I feel alive again.” And with that the focus group kind of brings that process and that experiential activity to a kind of verbal and mental processing of, wait, okay that did feel good. Okay, wait, I did accomplish something incredible. It kind of hones in on those effects.

Yamkovenko: Occupational therapy focuses on the power of occupation—the power of helping clients achieve their goals while participating in activities that are important to them.

Rogers: Occupational therapists, we have a unique lens. There is the task analysis. There is meeting the client or the participant where they’re at and seeing what the symptoms are and then seeing how surfing can be beneficial for them. And being able to fuse the actual occupation into their daily life is what occupational therapy is all about. One participant said, “Gosh Carly, I was just at my mental health appointment…” And we know that cognitive behavioral therapy is evidence based, but he said, “I’m tired of talking about the past. I want to start today. I want to look forward. I want to surf. I want to live again.”

Yamkovenko: To learn more about this study and occupational therapy, visit