Stress has been part of society’s vocabulary for years. It is heard daily in conversations when people are feeling pressure, tension, and anxiety. It is felt among those dealing with tragedy, pain, and poverty. Researchers have proven that when stress continues over a long time, it affects the health of the human body and is one of the main causes of poor health worldwide. (1)
The continued rise in stress-related diseases, what we call non-communicable diseases (NCDs), has encouraged the public health sector and the medical community to find workable solutions to reducing this epidemic rise. According to a recent report from the World Health Organization, over 41 million people worldwide die annually from NCDs. The majority of these are due to obesity, type II diabetes, and mental illness, often attributed to increasing sedentary lifestyles, poor diet, an aging population, and social isolation. (2)
Water has been revered for its healing properties for thousands of years in countries around the world. As early inhabitants of earth, our livelihood and well-being were totally connected to the natural world. Over time, that has changed to living mostly indoors and being consumed by unnatural surroundings and the impact of technology. Often people spend time in nature to ease their daily stress and enjoy feelings of relaxation and peace. With the increase in stress and its causal relationship to disease, scientists are very interested in finding out why and how exposure to nature affects the body.
Research reveals that environments can increase or reduce our stress, which in turn impacts our bodies. What we see, hear, and experience at any moment changes not only our mood, but how our nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are working. (3)
Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes us feel better emotionally, but it also contributes to our physical well-being, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. It may even reduce mortality, according to public health researchers Stamatakis and Mitchell who say, “Access to natural environments for physical activity should be protected and promoted as a contribution to protecting and improving population mental health.” (3,4)
Much of the research to date has focused on “green spaces” and the health effects of spending time in natural environments. But recently, scientists have found evidence that interacting with water may help anxiety and other stress-associated mental and physical health conditions. (3)
With over one-third of the world’s population living around coastal ecosystems, attention has more recently begun to focus on what researchers are calling ”blue space” and its effects on mental health. Blue space mainly refers to natural water bodies, not man made or artificial like swimming pools, fountains, canals, or ponds, although these can afford some pleasure for those not near any natural bodies of water.
A study by Michigan State University’s Amber Pearson is the first to find a link between health and the visibility of water. In a recent interview, she reported, “Increased views of blue space is significantly associated with lower levels of psychological distress. However, we did not find that with green space.” Even after controlling for variables like sex, wealth, and age, their findings held true: being able to see the water was associated with better mental health for just about everyone. (5)
Another significant study focused on US college students who are known to exhibit high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. This situation has become the number one health concern on most campuses. The causes of this collective emotional distress are many, from hustling for grades, to technologically-prompted isolation, to severe financial pressures. (6)
A 2020 study reviewed over 10,000 articles on student stress. This study aimed to define a “dose” of time in nature that could be prescribed to college-age students, as a preventative and supportive mental health and well-being intervention. The review showed that a 10-20 minute walk in nature was enough to significantly reduce stress. Daily v. weekly was not mentioned but presumably the more often the better. Including a blue space experience would seem to increase healing. Besides improving their well-being, “nature breaks” cost little compared to traditional treatments. (7)
The term “blue mind” describes the mildly meditative state we fall into when near, in, on, or under water. It could be the antidote to what is called “red mind” which is the anxious, over-connected, and over-stimulated state that defines the new normal of modern life.
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols has authored a book called Blue Mind in which he explores the benefits of time spent in or around water. “Water is also a source of creativity and inspiration,” he says. “When you look at water, there’s what people describe as this soft fascination — something that is interesting and that holds your attention, but not in an information-rich way.” (8)
Blue health is a term applied to the combined study of the links between urban spaces, climate, and health. In fact, there is a European research initiative called BlueHealth that is setting the parameters for such studies internationally.
Coupled with the concept of blue health is the term “blue care” which refers to blue space interventions (BSI). These interventions include pre-designed activities in a natural water setting. A systematic review of the worldwide literature on BSIs illustrates that blue care has the potential to improve mental health for diverse groups. (9)
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you cannot get outside, listen to some “water music.” The sounds of ocean waves, falling rain, or a babbling brook are popular music for relaxation. They are rhythmic and soothing thus putting you in a state of calm and peace. Otherwise, get yourself outside! Find a quiet space near water and just be. Or combine some blue space with green space to further enhance your relaxation. Nature is one of the best “medicines” for keeping us healthy and happy.
- Ning Zhang, MD, et al Medicine (Baltimore). 2019 May; 98(20): e15416. DOI: 10.1097/MD.0000000000015416. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31096437
- Louise Delagran, MA, MEd, How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing? | Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing. https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-nature-impact-our-wellbeing
- Mitchell, R., Is physical activity in natural environments better for mental health than physical activity in other environments? https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953612003565
- Amber L. Pearson et al. Residential exposure to visible blue space (but not green space) associated with lower psychological distress in a capital city. Health & Place, Volume 39, May 2016, Pages 70-78. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1353829216300119
- Guide2research.com. 50 Current Student Stress Statistics: 2019/2020 Data, Analysis & Predictions https://www.guide2research.com/research/student-stress-statistics#3
- Meredith, G., et al. Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review. Front. Psychol., 14 January. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02942/full
- Medium. 2021. There’s a Scientific Reason Why Water Is So Calming. https://elemental.medium.com/theres-a-scientific-reason-why-water-is-so-calming-79ec1b3a3261
- Easkey Britton, et al. Blue care: a systematic review of blue space interventions for health and wellbeing. Health Promotion International, Volume 35, Issue 1, February 2020, Pages 50–69. https://academic.oup.com/heapro/article/35/1/50/5252008