By Dr. Catherine Kelly
What is it about water that helps us? In essence, we know intuitively that for many of us we simply feel better when we are in or near water – ‘subjective wellbeing’, where it is self-reported, or felt. A new research agenda is emerging and slowly beginning to receive funding, where a more scientific, or objective, evidence-base is being investigated to prove the benefits of blue spaces across a range of human wellbeing areas. Let’s examine some of the personal aspects and the research around why water helps us.
This is my fifth year of sea-swimming all year round, and like so many people who have discovered ‘wild swimming’, it has had an enormous impact on my wellbeing. But my experience of water solace began over twenty-five years ago following the sudden death of my 47 year old mother. I was a young, recent Ph.D graduate in my twenties, working at a University geography department in London when I got the call to say a sudden brain haemorrhage had killed her instantly. I had been speaking to her on the phone the evening before so it was surreal in the extreme. What followed was a stumbling of sorts, back ‘home’, to Dublin first, and then to a wonderful job in what turned out to be the most healing of places – the wild Atlantic coasts of Mayo.
In the aftermath of grief, when your mind and soul are numb and shocked, being by the sea can bring you back into your body. The wind, the cold water, the elements themselves force you to feel something – which trauma, grief, depression, and other ailments can steal from you. They are all wounds, of sorts I think, and cleaning a wound with water and air helps it to heal. I spent six years on that Atlantic coast, allowing myself to be buffeted, bathed and rebalanced. And even though I was drawn there intuitively, it wasn’t until much later in my academic career that I learned that I was doing what is now central to research on bluespace wellbeing, ecopsychology, and environmental connectedness. I have since found the words, terminology and academic frameworks to investigate and promote this ocean-wellbeing advocacy work that is personal to so many of us.
After 6 years in the west, I was offered a post at a London University, and now the University of Brighton, where I work and live by the sea once more. My research has broadened out beyond heritage studies, to wider landscapes, wellbeing, and our human connections with natural places. Over ten years ago, I also completed a BSc. in Stress Management, and undertook various training courses in mindfulness for adults and children. For quite a while now, I have been an odd hybrid of academic, researcher, wellbeing practitioner and author. But, it allows me to practice what I preach in a lovely way. I run ChillSquad, my own education-sector wellness programme for young people, ‘Wild Blue School, Brighton’, a coastal learning organisation, and ‘Blue Spaces day retreats’ with various themes around wellbeing, grief, stress and self-care. I suppose this is a roundabout way of saying that my academic and personal career twists and turns have since allowed me to name, analyse and practise how being around water helped me to cope all those years ago.
The term ‘blue-spaces’ refers to all natural waters – oceans, seas, rivers, ponds, streams and waterfalls. If we want to be looser with the term, we can include fountains, canals, outdoor swimming pools and even your own bath or shower at home. Very simply, we now know that water makes us feel better. But how, and why? Let’s think first of all about the concept of wellbeing. In my own research book- Blue Spaces: How and Why Water Can Make You Feel Better, I take this to comprise of three main components; 1) Physical Wellbeing, 2) Psychological Wellbeing, and 3) Social Wellbeing. Collectively they are all important to our sense of ourselves and our place in the world. Let’s look at each in turn briefly. Water offers us a natural, enticing invitation to move I always think. Research shows that a walk by the water is the preferred environment of many humans. Not only that, water allows us to swim in it, dive under it, sail, sup and surf on it. Moving our bodies increases our cardiovascular fitness, releases mood-enhancing endorphins and helps with muscle building and bone density improvement. Water invites us in. Up to 70% of our human body is water, just as the earth is made up of roughly 70% water – it is therefore a natural homeostasis habitat for us to occupy.
The second area of wellbeing that improves with blue space engagement is our psychological wellbeing – our mental health or stress levels. Research shows us that being in or next to water reduces our blood pressure, slows our breathing down and allows our parasympathetic nervous system to do its job. This is our ‘rest, repair and repose’ system and is vital for effective brain function and a strong immune system. Water encourages us to relax, in other words. WJ Nichols refers to the idea of ‘blue mind’, a state where our brains are calmed by the presence of water. This is the opposite of red mind – or our ‘fight-flight-freeze’ alarm response system that operates when we are under acute stress. Being in and near water reduces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline that course through our bodies and make us feel unwell. Interesting research is emerging too on the anti-inflammatory powers of cold water.
We know that inflammation plays a role in many diseases and in depression and anxiety, for example. The vagus nerve winds its way through our bodies (literally a vagrant) and anti-depressants work to emulate the effects of this nerve. We know that immersing ourselves in cold water regularly, stimulates this nerve to give us powerful mood enhancing effects. Indeed, my lovely sea swimming tribe are often heard to shout ‘Vagus baby’ after a particularly cold swim. Outdoor swimming therefore, really is nature’s high – freely available. There is also emerging evidence on ‘cross-adaptation’, where exposure to small amounts of manageable stress (such as gentle, short, regular cold-water immersion) ‘primes’ our body for the stresses we encounter in our everyday lives. In other words, a short regular cold water sea-dip or cold shower helps us cope with stress. In addition, looking at water, the horizon, the sky and any surrounding habitats gives us a sense of awe, calm and perspective. In water, we come home to ourselves – our bodies and minds, in a way that few other places offer, so simply and effortlessly. Water meditates us, in other words. We don’t need to try…it works with us, naturally and easily.
The third aspect of wellbeing that I think is hugely important is that of social wellbeing. The idea of community is something that is tenuous in the world we live in now. But for many, the opportunity that comes with joining an outdoor swimming group has a huge bearing on social wellbeing and this overlaps very much with psychological mental health. We only need to look at the huge negative impact Covid lockdowns have had, where human contact has been cut or reduced, to see how much we really need each other. My research shows that this camaraderie, this acceptance of each other and of the water, is what keeps many people going back for more. For mothers who don’t speak to another adult all day, for single people living alone, or homeworkers, -getting outside into nature, into the water with other like-minded souls is the highlight of their day or week. My own tribe of ‘Salty Seabirds’ in Brighton give me encouragement, friendship, raucous laughter and a lot of cake. They have become an integral part of my life and I know it is the same for many people who have found their ocean-tribes.
The Japanese have a lovely phrase, ‘living water’ – and it is this idea that we bring ourselves to the water in a reciprocal relationship. We pour our worries and emotions into this living water, it takes them from us…and we in turn look after it, our precious bluespace. Water allows us to connect to our authentic selves, to each other, and most profoundly to the oceans and seas themselves. This reciprocal giving is a key-way to allow people ‘in’ to the debate about ocean environmental care. If the oceans make me feel well, then I will look after them. It is a simple, accessible message, one that doesn’t present as a global issue that seems huge, overwhelming, or dissociative. Start with personal, wellbeing, then the local collective, and these pieces of the jigsaw begin to match up gradually across our blue planet. A planet where we look after ourselves, each other and our oceans.
Dr.Catherine Kelly, University of Brighton. C.Kelly5@brighton.ac.uk
Blue Spaces: How and Why Water Can Make You Feel Better. Wellbeck Balance Publishing. Available now via all good booksellers.