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Surfing bipolar. Note #2

by Varvara 3 months ago in bipolar

How the moods reflect the nature of the ocean

In Surfing Bipolar: Note 1, I explored the intersection between surfing, ocean waves, and bipolar disorder. Today, I continue by exploring how bipolar mood waves (episodes) reflect the nature of the ocean. When I first started surfing, I categorized waves as small, big, very big, and huge-deadly. Since then, I’ve learned a few things about waves.

“This is the ocean, salty and wet. Before we can become good surfers we want to have at least a basic understanding of what makes a wave work, we have to learn to read the water. It starts with simple observation” - Tom Doig

Understanding how ocean waves form and behave can make the surfing experience much more predictable and enjoyable. Understanding the bipolar disorder ‘ocean’ and its waves can make life easier for those who have the disorder, and those close to them.

While waves can be caused by hazardous events like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, most waves are surface waves and caused by wind blowing over the ocean. Waves created by local, less powerful winds are called sea by scientists, and wind swells by surfers. Storm winds, on the other hand, originate far out in the ocean and are called swell or groundswells.

Tides are a third and the biggest type of wave; they cause “the sea to rise and fall along the shore around the world”. Tides exist because of and depend on the gravitational pull and location of the Moon and the Sun.

When deep-water waves approach the shore and begin transitioning to shallow-water waves, their shape and behavior is affected by the seafloor. What’s under the water starts to direct the speed and the shape of the wave.

This is bipolar disorder; unstable and emotional. Before we become comfortable with it, we want to have at least a basic understanding of what makes a mood wave work. We have to learn to read the triggers. It starts with simple observation.

In the same way that the wind, tides, and seafloor come together to form unique surfing conditions, there are a number of factors that researchers agree combine to create unique bipolar experiences. These factors include a person's biological traits, such as their genetics and brain structure. Environmental factors and life events, such as childhood trauma, also appear to be connected to bipolar disorder.

As someone who lives with bipolar disorder, I imagine that biological factors are like the seafloor with its unique bathymetric map that took years to shape. In the same manner, the unique landscape of our brains has taken generations to form. People who have a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder have an increased chance of having the disorder themselves. Some studies even indicate that people with certain genes or brain structures are more likely to develop bipolar disorder.

When I look at my own genetic inheritance and sort through my childhood memories, I now recognize that the bipolar pattern of high and lows was a regular part of my environment. I, personally, began to experience significant mood changes in my adolescent years. I didn’t see a specialist until I was at my lowest in my late 20s. Before then, I wasn’t avoiding professional help, I just didn’t know that my mood waves were “not normal”. Bipolar disorder was the only seafloor I knew.

The tides that affect the quality of coming waves are like the environmental factors that shape bipolar disorder mood waves. Like how every surf spot reacts differently to changing tides, there is no one-rule-for-all for how people react to environmental factors.

However, research shows that seasonal weather changes may influence a person's ability to regulate their mood, especially if they have bipolar disorder. The higher mood or manic states “[have their] peaks in spring and summer and a third peak in mid-winter”, while lower mood or depressive states often happen during winter and spring.

The seasons, the daylight hours, daily temperature, and the daily number of sunshine hours have associations with relapse in bipolar disorder. The colder seasons with shorter daylight often trigger depression. - Aldinger & Schulze

Going back in memory to my darkest depressive episode: I was in Finland during a harsh winter. I have a deep love for Finland, but in the middle of December with only 6 daytime hours, I struggled to keep my head above the water during the low mood waves. The 100-day winter wasn’t the only factor that triggered this particular depressive episode, but transitioning into a warmer season did help speed up the positive effects of receiving medical help and getting clarity of mind. When spring came, with the help of therapy and medication, I entered into a recovery state. Soon after this, I was able to make life-changing decisions and moved to a warmer place--to start a new chapter in life.

I've noticed that in the communities I've been a part of, people are indeed more energetic and are more likely to be in a positive mood during late spring and summer. During these seasons, we meet more, generate countless ideas and move through life with more energy. The longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures seem to provide us, humans, with positive fuel and energy the way that incoming tides give the surf some extra push and power.

“A super high tide can tend to slow waves down and cause them to roll past you. A super low tide can tend to drain things out and cause waves to quickly pitch over themselves. An incoming tide can sometimes give the surf some push and power, while an outgoing tide may have the opposite effect.” - Tides 101

The third common seasonal peak for high mood waves--mid-winter--is a time of festivities, exciting new goals, heartwarming wishes and socializing to celebrate the calendar year change. the events and mindsets of this time add positive energy to each person's mood wave, much like how the wind transfers energy to the ocean's waves. This transfer of positive energy is especially important for people with bipolar disorder who can be more sensitive to their environments. When my current mood wave is a positive one and I am surrounded by highly inspiring people or involved in charged shared activities, then the pull to mania is very strong and hard to resist.

Lastly, the waves brought by local and far away winds--wind swells and groundswells--are like the positive and traumatic life events that we all experience..

Groundswells brought by far away storm winds from the open ocean often transition to large and powerful surf when coming closer to the shore. Wind swell’s energy does not run as deep. It creates less powerful, smaller surf with a shorter interval. - Jeroen

Some events have minor effects on our lives like wind swells on the ocean’s surface. Whereas other events are more like groundswells that “travel thousands of kilometers from [a] storm center until they strike [a] shore”. These groundswell events have effects on our lives long after they first happen.

The memories of these events often come out later in life. The positive ones fill us with energy and cheerful outlooks on life; the traumatic ones haunt us and bring depressive waves that have traveled years to get to their full power. There is even a hypothesis that “birth complications have an impact on bipolar disorder”, but not enough research has been done to be sure. What researchers are sure of is that “a history of childhood trauma is common in patients with mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder” (Aldinger & Schulze).

I’m gradually learning to process my childhood groundswells--the multiple parental divorces, the constant changing of schools, homes, and cities--and their traumatic impact on my development. I’m at a time in my life when I also see how the same groundswells have taught me resilience and endurance, as well as compassion for others and openness to new experiences. The same concept applies to surfing.

There are still groundswells that are too difficult for me to process or surf. But, with the help of experienced therapists and surfing teachers, one day I will be able to handle these, as well.

“Surfing everyday is different, every wave is different.” - Tom Doig

The combination of different underwater landscapes and weather conditions shape one-of-a-kind waves at every surf spot, and each person’s experience with bipolar’s mood waves vary. But just like unique waves share certain characteristics, the 46 million unique people in the world who have bipolar disorder have certain shared experiences during their mood waves. I will take a closer look into the waves and their characteristics in my next note for this series.

Thank you for reading, talk soon.



  • Copyediting by Carmel Kundai
  • Graphics by Natasha Mileshina


*the author is writing from personal experience living with bipolar disorder and learning to surf. For any clinical information or if you/somebody you know is struggling with the weight of bipolar disorder, depression, or another aspect of their mental health, please reach out to a professional. Same applies to surfing--please search for professional channels to learn surfing.




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