What Surfing Taught Me About Overcoming Trauma


When I first decided to learn to surf, I thought of it as nothing more than a physical activity to do in my free time. What I assumed to be just a hobby, turned into me meeting my very first guru: the ocean. And she was no gentle teacher. She showed no sympathy for the inexperienced, no remorse for those she greeted with a brutal grace only she was capable of. She simply existed. And in her existence, she taught me that despite living in a world where I have no control over life events, I do have all the power.

I’ve heard the following question numerous times, “The million dollar question in trauma is why do some people make complete recoveries, and others never do?” Life hits everyone in different ways, in different degrees of severity. But those degrees of severity don’t seem to be a determining factor to answer this question. There is no one size fits all answer, but based off of my own experiences I believe that recovery is not possible until one releases self-victimization.

This is difficult to digest for many people who have experienced traumatic life events. Understandably so, if another person or event harmed you, then it’s reasonable if you feel you were the victim of that situation. What would it mean to renounce the victim title? What good could come from it? Does the one who has harmed you get to walk away untouched? Does what you have gone through end up being in vain? Do you lose a part of your identity by no longer identifying as a victim?

Can the ocean answer these questions?ocean waves during daytime

Enduring trauma is not a situation that we carefully organize and then willingly invite into our lives knowing how much damage it is going to cause. It’s something that occurs completely out of our control. And those who have experienced trauma, often feeling this total lack of control, tend to hold onto the victim title as a means for some type of power over what happened. But the opposite is actually true. By remaining in self-victimization the trauma controls you.

Life comes in waves that you cannot control. Just as, no matter what you do, you will never be able to control the ocean. You are at her mercy. Perhaps one day she is soft and sweet, and the next she is chaotic, throwing you around like a dog does with an old chew toy. You could sit there and cry, “Look what the ocean did to me! Look at how she hurt me!” But what good would that do, cries can’t influence the ocean. As you play the victim, she just keeps on doing what she does, and you keep on getting beaten up. In situations like this, people tend to feel powerless, but they are in complete control of the reality they are experiencing. By choosing to cry over the harsh waves and not do anything else about it, you are designing your own experience of the wave. Once this is realized, it’s clear that you have total power over your reality because you can choose how to respond to the waves happening in your life.

And that is why we surf. 

As waves begin to roll in, it’s unclear what they will bring.  Maybe a wonderful new job, or perhaps a toxic relationship. The wave approaches, and what you experience is completely in your hands. So for those of you who choose to do so, you turn your boards in, paddle with everything you got and then…

The wave crashes on you. And you are being clobbered, thrown around at the mercy of the whitewater. You wonder if you are drowning, if you’ll even make it out alive. We’ve all been there, some of us are currently in it. It is in this moment you don’t know up from down, and any fighting you do just seems to make things worse. It is in this moment the ocean teaches you the art of surrender. And in the moment you learn it, she washes over you and you can breath again. Although it is the ocean’s fault for holding you underwater, it is your responsibility to decide what you are going to do about it. Then despite the cruelty of the experience, you dare to try again.

Peter Heller, author of Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life and Catching the Perfect Wave accurately captured this into words when he wrote, “Surfing is one of the only pursuits on earth that can drub you into numb exhaustion and blunt trauma time and time again and give you nothing in return; nothing but sand in your crotch, salt-stung eyes, banged temple, chipped tooth, screaming back, and sunburned ears—gives you all of this and not a single stand-up ride. Time and again. Day after day. Gives you nothing back but tumbles, wipeouts, thumpings, scares. And you return. You are glad to do it. In fact, you can think of nothing you’d rather do.” What if we responded to all life throws at us in the same way?

So for those who decide to paddle back out to try to catch another wave, you’re probably tired, your shoulders burn. You might feel discouraged, incompetent, and sometimes a set just won’t stop knocking you off your board. But this is all part of the process. As Jasmine Lee Cori, author of Healing From Trauma: A Survivor’s Guide to Understanding Your Symptoms and Reclaiming Your Life, wrote, “when we commit ourselves to healing, we open up to a different type of suffering—the pain that is part of the healing process…If handled skillfully this suffering becomes therapeutic. We heal.” So despite the struggle, you try again as the next wave comes. And this time you catch it, and this time you stand up, and this time you ride it.

And no feeling compares to the ecstatic thrill of flying on the surface of the water. And through that experience of pure joy and bliss you realize that if you never had the courage to face the scary wave in the first place you would have never gotten to experience this feeling of absolute greatness. By claiming your power to respond, you have transformed a previously destructive wave into an opportunity to create something positive and meaningful. This is how you can experience the very best of what life has to offer… even in the midst of the potential chaos that is recovering from trauma.

The beauty of this is the ocean never changed how she treated you. She simply existed. And in her existence, she teaches what author of Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn, sums up so simply, “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

For anyone who is interested in learning how to surf, I highly recommend taking lessons with local surf school iSurf. They are great teachers with many affordable options, including short-term and long-term membership packages for those who are dedicated to learning to surf.



About Author


Rachel Sersland

Rachel Sersland was born in Santa Barbara but grew up in multiple cities around Southern California, only then returned to Santa Barbara to pursue a bachelors degree. Currently an undergraduate student at Antioch University, her educational goals are tailored to pursuing a career in Psychology. Happiest being active and creative, her favorite activities are surfing, practicing yoga, writing and creating artwork.

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