For writer and journalist Julia Baird, the daily ritual of swimming in the ocean provides a peaceful sanctum where her mind is free to wander and disconnect. While underwater, she also experiences awe, and here, outlines the health benefits of feeling much smaller than the world around us.
Studies have shown that awe can make us more patient and less irritable, more humble, more curious and creative – even when just watching nature documentaries – and it can ventilate and expand our concept of time. Research by psychological scientists Melanie Rudd, Kathleen Vohs and Jennifer Aaker concluded that “experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise”.
Research conducted by social psychologist Paul Piff and his colleagues suggests that people who regularly feel awe are more likely to be generous, helpful, altruistic, ethical and relaxed. In one case, people who spent time staring up at towering eucalypts were more inclined to help someone who had stumbled and dropped a handful of pens than those who had not. In other words, when dwarfed by an experience, we are more likely to look to one another and care for one another and feel more connected.
Several of my swimming friends have stopped taking antidepressants: they call the ocean ‘vitamin sea’. Wallace J Nichols, author of Blue Mind, a book about the benefits of being in or near water, says water has the ability to meditate you. A study published in the British Medical Journal in August 2018, posited the theory that swimming in cold, open water could be a treatment for depression, which is again science starting to catch up with what we already know. Why else would I, a night owl, find myself rising before dawn to jump into black seas if it wasn’t an addictive high?
The study was based on the experience of a 24-year-old woman who found that a weekly swim in cold water allowed her to stop her medication. The authors were uncertain why this happened – one suggestion was that the water worked as an anti-inflammatory or treatment for pain. For me, though, the explanation that rang true was put forward by co-author Michael Tipton, who said: “One theory is that if you adapt to cold water, you also blunt your stress response to other daily stresses such as road rage, exams or getting fired at work.”
The awe found in daily swims does bring a sense of connection, as does the companionship. In an era of increasing disconnection, digital-only relationships, and polarisation of political views, it is great to sit among such a varied group of people – with most of whom you only really share one thing – and talk rubbish and riptides. I walk down the stairs at the south end of the beach each day knowing that I will see dozens of beaming faces before I put in a toe in the water, and that each of them knows how lucky they are to have and to share this experience.
The importance of daily contact with people – the old fashioned face-to-face kind– has been well documented by researchers, including American sociologist Robert Putnam, who lamented the decline in America of social organisations such as churches, unions and community groups in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In recent years, the number of people who say they have very few or no confidants or close friends has rocketed, with worrying implications for our wellbeing: greater isolation and loneliness have been linked to increased risk of chronic illness and dementia, alcohol abuse, sleep problems, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, poor hearing and depression.
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