There’s a reason why many people feel much calmer when taking a stroll or participating in relaxing activities near an ocean, lake or river. Research shows that proximity to water benefits mental health.
“The cognitive benefits of being near the water are paramount,” said Cheree Martin, licensed vocational nurse and director of wellness at Harmony Place, a Los Angeles-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.
“Being near the water and allowing oneself to clear one’s mind of distractions and other externalities can encourage self-reflection and help harbor a meditative mood,” Martin said.
Scientist and marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols calls this effect “blue mind,” which he defines as “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.”
“Neuroscientists and psychologists [say] that the ocean and wild waterways are a wellspring of happiness and relaxation, sociality and romance, peace and freedom, play and creativity, learning and memory, innovation and insight, elation and nostalgia, confidence and solitude…and help manage trauma, anxiety, sleep, autism, addiction, fitness, attention/focus, stress, grief, post-traumatic stress disorder, build personal resilience and much more,” Nichols said.
Because bodies of water change and stay the same simultaneously, according to Nichols, people experience both soothing familiarity and stimulating novelty when they look at them. “This is regularity without monotony, the perfect recipe for triggering a state of involuntary attention in which the brain’s default network — essential to creativity and problem solving — gets triggered,” Nichols said. “This dreamy state of involuntary attention is a key characteristic of ‘blue mind’.”
During a 2016 study on whether coastal zones influence wellbeing, researchers in Japan found that compared to people who lived inland, those who lived close to the sea showed higher positive psychological effects and lower negative psychological effects.
A similar study, conducted in 2012 by the University of Exeter’s European Center for Environment and Human Health, revealed that on average, people living near the coast tend to have better health than those who live inland.
The center also conducted a study which showed that simply visiting a coastal area left people feeling calmer, more relaxed and more revitalized than they did after a visit to a city park or the countryside.
“The color blue has been found to be very calming and creates a feeling of peacefulness,” said Michelle White, therapist and licensed mental health counselor for Florida-based True Balance Counseling.
“The sound of the crashing waves has a soothing effect on the brain and has been shown to reduce the heart rate, breathing and blood pressure,” White told AccuWeather. “It helps us to externally focus our attention and reduces our rumination, decreasing our anxiety, worries and depression.”
Relaxing water activities
To reap the health benefits of being near a body of water, experts recommend partaking in a variety of water-related activities like kayaking or paddleboarding that individuals find to be calm or relaxing.
People don’t need an ocean to take advantage of water’s benefits, according to Nichols.
“Most of us have access to water, lakes or oceans in some form — and we underutilize their potential,” he told USA Today. “’Blue mind’ is not an exclusively ocean-only conversation, it’s a water conversation, and there are incredibly amazing waterways around the world.”
Activities like swimming can provide feel-good effects, as the constant stretching and relaxing of muscles and deep, rhythmic breathing sends swimmers into a quasi-meditative state, according to Nichols.
Even a simple stroll along a coastline can be enough to calm a person, said White.
“If a person is looking for peacefulness in a beach walk, I would encourage them to take their time, close their eyes and listen to the sound of the ocean waves,” she said. “Sink their feet into the sand and practice deep breathing; the best time is before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.”
Catching and riding the waves can also evoke a blissful, Zen-like state, referred to as “surfer’s stoke,” according to Nichols.
Surfing has also been used in therapy programs to replace the high of addictions with the endorphins that come with working out.
Experts also recommend taking a break from your phones or other devices to fully get into the zone while visiting a body of water.
“I encourage my clients to practice grounding skills, using all of their senses to notice things they see, feel, hear, taste and touch,” White said. “At the beach, they can see the colors of the sea and the sky, experience the warmth of the sun, feel the sand under their feet and hear the crashing of the waves.”
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