Few moments in surfing are as unpleasant as the gut wrench that comes from sprint-paddling over a menacing set wave only to be confronted with that wave’s meaner, panic-inducing, and much bigger brother behind it, looming up from the depths of a watery hell. Doesn’t matter if you’re Shane Dorian squaring off against a 60-footer at Jaws, or a Workaday Joe having a freak out at your local maxing beachbreak. Fear in the ocean is awful and often debilitating. As it turns out, that fear can also be good for you. Not just putting-hair-on-your-chest good for you, but legitimately physiologically beneficial.
Researchers have long known that chronic stress associated with things like illness, poverty, and depression can have toxic effects. But recent studies are beginning to show that your body absolutely loves short-term stresses in the face of danger, like, say, a boardshort-ruining cleanup set at Cloudbreak. Firdhaus Dhabhar, a professor of Behavioral Science at Stanford, has spent his career examining how high levels of acute short-term stress affect the body. Recently, he’s shown that, in simple terms, freaking out in the face of danger supercharges the immune system, sending beneficial cells to places most likely to be injured, everything from the skin, the lungs, and the gut. Wound healing throughout the body is increased too. There’s even hope that stress-charged immune cells can effectively fight cancerous tumors, based on a study that blocked the development of induced skin cancer in mice by exposing the little guys to stress hormones. “It may not work,” Dhabhar says about figuring out how to use stress hormones to fight cancer, “but if it did the benefits could be tremendous.”
Exercise helps too, by mimicking most of the same physiological stress responses your body undergoes when you’re terrified of getting caught inside at big Sunset, or being eaten by hyenas. So paddling your ass off while hyperventilating is doing double duty for your immune system. Even better, some of Dhabhar’s colleagues at Stanford are showing that certain hormones in the brain actually improve memory and learning under short-term stress.
All that’s left to do is find a wave that scares you, paddle out into the teeth of the beast, and absolutely soil yourself with fear. It’s like medicine!