If the crystal-blue waters of the ocean are calling you, and you find peace when you’re drawn to the sea, you could be experiencing the power of ‘blue mind’
When I’m stressed I get snappy. On one such day several years ago, I’d been standing on the precipice of a bad spell (I’ve lived with varying degrees of depression and anxiety most of my adult life), but I was determined to stay on solid ground. I made a list of the things that might make me feel better, and asked my husband to help me do the most important one: make a visit to the beach.
The next day we packed the car and buckled up. I was emotionally drained, but hopeful that seeing the choppy, sparkling North Sea would bring me back to life. But when my husband tried to start the car, my beachside resuscitation was cancelled. The battery was dead.
With hours to wait until the repair service arrived, I spent the day in tears and couldn’t explain why. My deep sense of longing to be near water was overwhelming, and quite honestly, a bit embarrassing. That was until recently when I found out that there is a name for the powerful effect that water has on our mental health; it’s called ‘blue mind’, and I’m 100% on board.
Marine biologist, Wallace J Nichols, coined the term, and gave a TedTalk on the subject. “The term ‘blue mind’ describes the mildly meditative state we fall into when near, in, on, or underwater,” he says. “It’s the antidote to what we refer to as ‘red mind,’ which is the anxious, over-connected, and over-stimulated state that defines the new normal of modern life. Research has proven that spending time near the water is essential to achieving elevated and sustained happiness.”
Wallace has also written a book on the subject called Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do. It blends cutting-edge studies in neurobiology and psychology, with personal tales from people who have experienced the power of the blue mind in real life.
Most of us know that getting outside is good for our mental and physical health, but visiting the seaside or a lake is considered by some to be the optimum version of nature therapy. In fact, a 2016 study found that increased views of blue space are significantly associated with lower levels of psychological distress, a result which was not true for green space. One reason for this could be the colour blue. Experiments show that blue light can lower heart rates, and a Tokyo railway line saw a 74% reduction in suicides as a result of installing blue lights.
Research shows that ruminating thoughts and feelings of anxiety can be quashed by observing the expansive nature of our oceans. Rolling tides ease us into a meditative state and give us a sense of perspective on life, which tends to minimise worries effectively.
Watching the ocean is a stark contradiction to the environment we typically inhabit in our daily lives. Flashing phones, tense meetings, and noisy cities are replaced with a near static landscape, which remains mostly unchanged as we gaze on peacefully. As the emptiness envelops us, our brains naturally relax. When small surprises appear — a seagull, a wave — this delivers a hit of dopamine that enhances the feel-good factor.
Rolling tides ease us into a meditative state and give us a sense of perspective on life, which tends to minimise worries effectively
Wallace calls this regularity without monotony, which is “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”. Ever wondered why your dentist has a giant fish tank in their waiting room? Studies show that looking at aquariums can relax patients who are about to undergo oral surgery. Subjects who looked at aquariums experienced a drop in blood pressure, heart rate, and improved mood.
According to the blue mind theory, being in or on the water is just as powerful as watching it from a distance. Hydrotherapy has been shown to reduce psychological stress, while swimming releases endorphins, encourages deep breathing, and leads to a meditative-like state. Surfing is so healing that it’s often used in recovery programmes to replace the high that comes with substance abuse. Kayak fishing is a water-based activity that has been particularly therapeutic for soldiers and veterans with PTSD. The combination of physical movement, learning a new skill, and the blue mind effect can break the cycle of traumatic recall, helping to replace painful memories with positive ones made on the water.
The main issue is that access to natural water sources is a barrier to entry for some (house prices are notoriously more expensive in coastal areas), but there are alternative ways to tap into the blue mind effect. A hot shower can ease anxiety, while a cold shower can invigorate the mind and body. Anything that recreates the sound of water is likely to ease stress and have a calming effect. I personally like to play rain sounds or crashing waves in my headphones when I find myself tossing and turning in the night. Even looking at videos or images of water can go some way to recreating the powers of nature in your own home.