She dunked me, and the third time, I learned that she needed to close her mouth and hold her breath. I haven’t wanted to go back to the surface since then. I fell in love with swimming, and with swimming in the ocean with Lifeguard training near me.
In high school, I spent weekends working on an aquarium; in college, I did a lot of diving in the Florida Keys. In addition to a sailing adventure after graduation. I worked as a dive master in Indonesia and as an underwater photographer in Australia. Accumulating nearly a thousand hours of diving.
Several months ago, I was in Florida helping my grandfather, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, get used to his new life in a nursing home. One night, sitting alone in his empty old house, I felt the familiar tightening of panic in my chest. My mind spiraled into thoughts: Why didn’t I spend more time with Grandpa when I had the chance, hear more stories from him, let him show me how to fix things? How am I going to take care of my parents when they reach that age, especially since Parkinson’s is genetic? What will happen to me when I get older, especially if I don’t end up having kids to take care of? Am I really making the most of our limited time on earth?
+ What polar explorers can teach us about mental health
+ Emotions are contagious yes!
I followed my usual techniques for dealing with anxiety – deep breathing, counting backwards from 100, naming all the green things in the room – but nothing worked. So I went to the beach. There was no one else in the water. My heart rate slowed as my feet hit the sand and the scent of salty air wafted through my nostrils. I put on my sports top and shorts and walked out into the Atlantic Ocean. A wave came in front of me and I dove under it. As my head broke the surface on the other side, calm washed over me.
I’ve struggled with my mental health since I was 12, first in the form of an eating disorder that turned into years of clinical anxiety and depression. At worst, my brain makes everyday tasks, from getting out of bed to writing this article, nearly impossible. But when I’m in or around the ocean, I feel almost instantaneous relief.
Since moving to Santa Fe, a 12-hour drive from the nearest coast, I’ve tried to fill the void of the lack of sea by trekking, camping and mountain biking. I even started interacting with the water in its different forms, learning to snowboard, kayaking and sailing on nearby lakes. But none of these activities gave me the same kind of peace as the sea, which made me think: Is there really a divide between mountain people and ocean people?
It’s well established that nature is good for your brain. Countless studies have shown that green spaces – from city parks to forests – improve quality of life and can help mitigate various health issues, including anxiety and depression.
But mounting evidence suggests that not all nature is created equal. In 2010, the American Chemical Society published an analysis of ten different studies on green spaces that showed that the presence of water – or “blue spaces” – amplified the effects of being outside in the environment.
A 2016 survey conducted in Wellington, New Zealand, found that proximity to the ocean, but not green space, was associated with less psychological distress. And several studies in the UK have concluded that the longer people live on the coast, the better their general health , especially those who come from low-income families.
Water -related treatments have been around for centuries, from ancient Roman thalassotherapy – the use of seawater to cure physical and mental ailments – to Scandinavian cold baths. In more recent times, ocean sports such as surfing and diving have proven effective in treating everyone from veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to cancer patients. Swimming in the ocean, with open water swimming has also become a growing trend for psychological healing, underpinned by a series of books that include Alexandra Hemmings’s Leap In , Joe Minivan’s Floating: A Life Regained , and more recently , Why We Swim , by Bonnie Tsui.
Also read: How to develop mental toughness
Despite growing scientific evidence, the intersection of water and psychology is a relatively new field. One of the people in front of you is Wallace J. Nichols . Compelled to study marine biology because of the joy he felt around the sea, Nichols became more interested in the neuropsychological effects of water as his 20-year career as a biologist progressed. He wanted to read a book on the subject, and when he couldn’t find one, he decided to write it in 2014. The result, Blue Mind , consulted with scientists, athletes, and artists to examine what happens to our minds and bodies when we’re in and around of oceans, lakes, rivers and even swimming pools.
“When people tell me they’re mountain people, not water people, I always ask what they’re aiming for when they’re on a hike,” says Nichols. “Whether it’s a lake, river, waterfall or glacier, there is something that draws people to the water.” It all boils down to an evolutionary necessity; before it came instantly out of our faucets, water was a source of life and comfort, something our brains are hell-bent on seeking. “The sight, sound and touch of water trigger a neurochemical response that makes us feel safe,” he says.
In fact, studies have shown that immersion in water can cause the brain to shift the balance of epinephrine and dopamine in the same way that meditation does. Nichols explains it more directly: “The best medicine for our physical, social and emotional health is water. Period.”
Read more: Two hours a week in contact with nature improves health
But if Nichols is right, then why don’t lakes and rivers do it for me? In Santa Fe’s summer, a freshwater stream brings temporary respite. But I still have to feel the same effects on my mental health as I do by the ocean.
In a 2015 study , British researchers placed participants in front of a large aquarium at different stages of refilling. “There’s more to lightly fascinate yourself with – something that keeps your attention and keeps you from getting bored.”
In all likelihood, though, White and Nichols agree that my preference for the sea over fresh water probably dates back to childhood. Just as the smell of grandma’s freshly baked cookies triggers a flood of positive emotions. So many of my favorite memories are associated with the ocean.
A thought that calms me down is me swimming in open water through bioluminescent algae while a whale swims nearby. To someone else, it could be a stream running alongside the tent. Either way, Nichols claims that any time spent in the water is better than none at all.
Also Read: How Diets Affect Mental Health
Or maybe it’s something more philosophical. I see a lot of myself reflected in the ocean: restless, ever-changing, unpredictable. To me, mountains, though wild in their own way, seem stoic, a constant. There are still very few peaks to climb, while 80% of the ocean remains unexplored . Nothing excites me more than going somewhere I haven’t been and doing something I haven’t done. Nothing scares me more than stasis.
One of the happiest days of my life was when. I was swinging on a sailboat in the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the night. With hundreds of miles of salt water in every direction. All lit up by a golden moon rising from the horizon. I sat outside for hours, staring, not thinking about anything. And flooded with a sense of tranquility I had never felt before and never felt.
In this way, the appeal of the ocean, as Nichols puts it, is “both what it brings in and what it takes away”. Any form of moving water produces negative ions (invisible molecules suggested. By some research can make people feel more energetic and improve overall mood), rhythmic sounds. And a supportive buoyancy sensation, which have all been shown to be therapeutic on their own. But for me—and for others, from what Nichols has observed—half. The power of water is its ability to rid us of stressors.
+ What flotation therapy is like, which promises to relax, recover and help with performance
My grandfather died unexpectedly in April 2019, a few days after his 88th birthday. I inherited my love of water and swimming in the ocean from him. In his youth, he was known for bodysurfing during storms and spent most of his retired days at the beach. I’ve never needed the ocean more than when my mom called me at 6:30 in the morning to tell me the news. But because of the pandemic, there was no funeral. And I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back to the place he and I hold dear.
So the day he died, I sank into a bathtub and put on sea sounds. Laying my head under the water, I took my mind back to the ocean. The moment before my face broke the surface after diving under a wave. For a second, I was there, a feeling that was calming my churning brain. As soon as I took the air, the image disappeared, but the peace stayed a little longer.