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Blue Mind: The Power of Water to Improve Well-being

Blue Ocean WaveMy wife Joan grew up in California near the Pacific Ocean, and she is still a beach girl at heart. Since childhood, Joan has instinctively known that water has special powers to relax and destress her mind and body. In fact, she was planning on studying to be a marine biologist until she became fascinated with nutrition in college. Her favorite vacation is a quiet and warm seaside venue where she can walk barefoot in the sand and sunbathe during the day, and then sometime after sunset drift off to sleep to the sounds of gentle waves rolling onto the shore. As a teenager, Joan swam competitively for several years, often in a cold outdoor pool during predawn workouts, which left her with a negative connotation of swimming. Since then, for her day-to-day water therapy, she indulges herself with a long, steaming-hot shower as an essential part of her morning routine.
Wallace J. Nichols is a marine scientist who authored a wonderful book, Blue Mind, which uses science and stories to make the case that being near, in, on, or underwater can make us less stressed, healthier, happier, and more connected. After the last few nerve-wracking years, many Americans are feeling emotionally exhausted, burned out, and struggling to find balance in their lives again. If you feel like you need to refresh your mental state of mind, water can be a vital therapy to accomplish this goal.
Neuroscientists have found that spending time near blue spaces - lakes, oceans, rivers, streams, and even pools and fountains can calm anxiety, lift mood, boost mental sharpness, and generally improve well-being. Doing activities in or on water, such as swimming, paddleboarding, sailing, kayaking, or surfing can help immerse us in a flow state, where we become engrossed in the activity and lose track of time. In the flow state, you’re completely focused on a single task, and all your attention is directed toward the activity so that you don’t experience any thoughts about yourself or your performance. Some people also refer to this as being in the zone.
On the other hand, during daydreaming, the mind tends to wander to unhappy thoughts, worries, and ruminations. As Ryan Holiday says, “We suffer more in imagination than in reality. Most of the things that we’re anxious about, that we torture ourselves about, that we dread, that we catastrophize in our head—they never actually end up happening. Sure, bad stuff does happen in life, but our nightmares are usually worse than reality. Don’t suffer unnecessarily. Don’t borrow suffering from the future.”
Engaging with water tends to soften our focus and produces a natural mindfulness that is ideal for being fully present at the moment, which reduces worry and cultivates gratitude and creativity. This is why being around water in nature is so restorative.
Albert Einstein was an avid, though absentminded, lifelong sailor. At age 18, Albert regularly took his sailboat, Tinef (translated meaning is “a little piece of junk”), out to meander on Lake Zurich, Switzerland. He would bring a notebook with him and zigzag across the water. When the wind died down and the sails drooped, he grabbed the notebook and scribbled down ideas that came to him unbidden. Author Jamie Sayen wrote that Einstein “loved it when the sea was calm and quiet, and he could sit in Tinef thinking or listening to the gentle waves endlessly lapping against the side of the boat.” When the breeze picked up, he was back to sailing again.
Water has special characteristics that tend to amplify nature’s positive impact on mood. Being near a body of water can captivate us with its wave action, soothing sounds, reflections, and clear blue colors. I love to walk/ bike/hike next to a lake or stream, or do yoga next to an ocean or lake at sunrise or sunset. I also jump at the opportunity to kayak or use a standup paddleboard (usually with my dog, Lady) every chance I get.
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein wrote, “Bodies of water also can produce a glorious sense of awe - the emotional response to something vast that expands and challenges how we see the world. Awe can decrease stress and help us put things into perspective.” Our modern lives often demand intensely focused attention on a screen or the road or a job, which predictably depletes our cognitive energy. Paying attention to blue spaces gives the mind a break from this daily grind by inducing a soft fascination, whereby water holds your attention in a calm and peaceful manner. Waves and other dynamic features of water in nature produce a play of light, colors, and sounds that are mesmerizing. Even scents from blue spaces can evoke pleasant memories and brighten mood.
Throughout my life, when I find myself feeling stressed or facing a daunting problem or just needing to recharge, I seek the healing power of water. Usually, this is in the form of swimming, preferably in an outdoor pool, lake, or ocean. For about five months of the year, as the sun comes up, I swim in a quiet neighborhood pool surrounded by large pin oaks. I alternate between freestyle and backstroke, and when on my back I stare at the clouds. Like staring at flames in a fireplace or campfire, focusing on clouds floating overhead never fails to put me in a meditative state.
Physical activity performed in water is a combination of exercise and meditation. Swimming forces you to focus on your breathing, while the noise of the outside world is replaced by the rhythmic sounds of water flowing around your body. When you are floating in or gliding through it, water gently stretches your muscles, tendons, and ligaments; reduces stress hormones; and induces a pleasant trance-like state. Regardless of my mood before I swim, when I climb out of the water, I feel euphoric and grateful.
I suspect you already realize that spending time near blue spaces like oceans, lakes, and streams can melt away anxiety, relieve mental stress, and rejuvenate the mind and body. Here are some practical strategies to enjoy therapeutic benefits from water:
  • -  Visit blue spaces near you, even if just a local pond, canal, stream, or river. Look for wildlife like waterfowl, other birds, and fish.
  • - On weekends, make a day trip to a lake or recreational blue space.
  • - At least once per year, ideally in winter, vacation at a warm sunny beach.
  • - Kansas City is known as the City of Fountains, and with more than 200 man-made water features, we have more fountains than Rome. Notice and appreciate them. Gaze at and listen to the sounds of the flowing water.
  • - Marvel at the rain and snow. Maybe it’s because I love to garden and have Irish heritage, but my whole life I’ve loved the rain. I make a point of going out for a walk with the dogs when it’s raining. And growing up near the Canadian border in North Dakota and Minnesota, blizzard days were my absolute favorite times of the year. I love to ski or snowboard when the snow is coming down.
  • - Take a warm bath before bed and use Epsom salts (magnesium), which will soothe your musculoskeletal system and ease your mind.
In Good Health,
James O'Keefe, MD