Feel Better By the Beach

The Ocean is Good for Mental Health

As someone who was fortunate enough to be raised within ear shot of the ocean, I have come to know that a short walk along the shoreline relieves stress and calms my anxious mind. Before I went away to college, a full 3 hours from the ocean, I had never lived more than a few blocks from the beach. I quickly learned that a creek was a pale substitute for crashing waves and that sometimes the only way to deal with stressing about the future was a midnight run to the sea to watch the sun rise, alight the ocean with your feet in the sand, and gain warmth with a blanket over your shoulders. Feeling cold, wet and tired has never brought so much relief and inner peace. It took me four years to discover that for me the ocean was an integral part of my own pursuit of health and wellness.

By now, it’s well established that the your working and living environments can have a profound effect on your physical and mental health. However, little has been written about the positive benefits of open water, at least until recently. The term “green space” refers to the plants and vegetation that make up verdant natural spaces. “Blue spaces” refer to all the visible waters in a place, including oceans, rivers and lakes. Now scientific evidence is starting to support my real life experience: that “blue space” can have positive effects on our health and sense of wellbeing.

“Water in all its forms can be the quickest shortcut to mindfulness and a shift into what I call ‘blue mind’ that I know of,”
— Wallace J. Nichols

As a scientist and author of Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, Wallace J. Nichols is helping to unlock the secrets of how water and health are linked. When we are near water, he says, “Our brains switch into a different mode which can involve mind-wandering, creativity, and sleep, which are all known to be important to health, resilience, and productivity. Psychologists refer to water’s changing uniformity as putting us in a state of ‘soft fascination,’ which can be highly restorative.”

In 2016, a team of researchers from New Zealand and the US conducted a study looking at residents of the city of Wellington, an urban capital city that is surrounded by the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean. They found that living within sight of water was linked to lower levels of psychological stress, regardless of income levels, which are often correlated with positive health outcomes. Another study conducted by German researchers found that that even being near human-made water features, such as fountains, ponds, and even canals, “induces [restorative] experiences [and] creates meaning.”

Living in East LA, a full hour away from the ocean, I can still hit the trails of Griffith Park and hike to the top of Mt. Hollywood. From there I can gaze out into the distance at the vast expanse of ocean that I grew up with. Instantly my mind becomes calm as I close my eyes and drink in the views. My shoulders become relaxed and my back stands a bit taller. We don’t yet understand why water has this effect on our minds and bodies but some medical professionals believe that humans have evolved to have positive associations with water due to the fact that water is essential to life. Being in the proximity to clean fresh water eliminates one threat to our survival.

Researchers in the UK have suggested that human beings might be naturally drawn to settle near water “because they have supported human settlement” in the past. Coastal regions and natural harbors have long supported human settlements as well as have rivers and lakes. Water is, after all, the manifestation of something primal. Life, it is said comes from water and needs water in order to survive. Without water, there is no life. Our bodies are 60% water and it seems that we are hardwired to have positive associations with it. When we see water we feel more grounded and connected with the natural world.

Water is not a substitute for mental health care but it may be a tool to help us all feel a little better about ourselves and the world around us. It is important, when living in a hyper-stimulated environment, to reconnect with and find comfort in nature. Getting away from the sights, sounds and smells of the world is a great way to calm a hyperactive nervous system. Being in nature or spending time near bodies of water enables us to remain centered and responsive to our lives, rather than merely reactive.

All of this is to say that “blue spaces” are just as important as “green spaces” for promoting health and wellbeing. So next time you’re looking for ways to improve your mental health, consider a walk along the beach or installing a water feature in your backyard. Do whatever it takes to incorporate more blue into your life and the better you’ll feel.

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