You may have heard about green spaces being good for your mental health. Recently, the conversation around spending time in nature and it being good for you, has exploded. People are now talking about ‘blue mind’, the science of how spending time near water can improve your health and wellbeing.
What’s so special about water? Well, put simply: we are water. We came from water, we are made of water and we live on a water planet. Ok, it’s starting to sound a bit sci fi. Let's explain.
We spend the first nine months in the womb literally surrounded by water. Our bodies are 60-70% water, which is why we can float in water, and our planet is 70% covered by water. Oh, and we come from the sea. No, not as mer-people: we evolved and all that.
But more importantly, we are inspired by water. We love walking by it, swimming in it, sailing on it, fishing in it. We base our towns and cities around it, we write about it, take pictures of it, surf it, drink it, wash with it. Water restores and relaxes us, captures our imagination, and sparks our most romantic moments.
Now stop reading this article and try to imagine your favourite cities and natural spaces without water. We bet they don’t cut the mustard anymore?
We all have mental health that we need to nurture and look after. Since March 2020, the phrase ‘zoom fatigue’ has entered the popular lexicon. Many of us can relate to the feeling. It describes that drained feeling from too much work online, too much social media, too much information.
Thankfully, the effects of stress and the effects of being calm are being studied. In fact, thanks to neuroscience (the study of the nervous system and the brain) we have learnt a lot about the brain in recent years. Neuroscience puts us at a great moment in human history when we can try to understand what makes us feel good, and surprisingly some of the answers can be quite simple. That’s right, we’re back to talking about water.
If you’re able to leave the classroom and venture into the school grounds or further afield, then water can be a great way to not only teach children about nature, but also to bring the benefits of Blue Mind to them.
Here are some tips:
1. Find water. We’re not all lucky enough to live by the sea, fortunately though, we don’t need to if we want to get the benefits of water. Hunting down any patch of water no matter how small can be of huge educational and emotional benefit to children. Canals, rivers, ponds and even fountains are all perfect locations.
2. Learn about the natural world. Sounds simple, but it’s a lifelong journey. Here in the UK, we have a fantastic variety of water-loving species of animals and plants. Equipping your students with the skills to identify them, whether that’s through ID books or apps such as Seek will empower them and build their connection to blue spaces.
3. How do you feel? Even the most built-up and urban environment can have fantastic sources of water and wildlife. Encourage a moment of quiet time. As the children to pay attention to the sounds, smells, sights and ultimately, they'll connect to their feelings when in blue spaces. This might be hard at first, but by making this a regular question it will become easier for them with time.
4. Give back. Another way to deepen your classes connection to nature is to give back, it’s empowering and important for motivation. One of the simplest things you can do is a litter pick.
We are hardwired to have a positive response to being near water. For example, the Health in Coastal Communities report found that while coastal communities do face health challenges, they are "generally intrinsically healthier". Those living closer to the coast report better health on average than their inland counterparts (after controlling for socio-economic and demographic influences).
Further studies have found you don’t need to live by the sea to get the benefits, even just visiting it reduces stress. In fact, some research shows that simply looking at aquariums can calm patients who are about to undergo medical surgery, lowering their heart rate and blood pressure and increasing positive mood. Even just looking at the colour blue can chill us out.
“Really?” you ask. Lower your eyebrows and let's talk hormones now.
Cortisol is the primary stress hormone. It can be provoked by the continual use of technology and phones. Oxytocin is associated with love, empathy, and trust. We get oxytocin when we are experiencing that awe at the natural world. We are evolved for a changing outdoor environment.
Water is constantly changing. It’s water’s ability to capture our attention that seems to be one of the reasons why it calms us down. The whole experience of walking along the beach for example enables you to see changes in light, changes in movement and your gaze softens on the gentle repetitions of the waves. It is this feeling of tranquillity or awe, which helps people suffering with anxiety and depression shift the focus away from their own issues and on to the external environment. We all need to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, and what more tangible thing to feel connected to than the ocean.
So, what’s actually happening when you’re by the coast? It's not just about gazing at the ocean, there are other important factors too.
People tend to engage in more physical activity when by the coast such as surfing, flying a kite, walking the dog, playing on the beach, swimming, rock pooling, the list goes on. Also, people are likely to have positive social interactions by the sea. All these things promote good physical and mental health.
Using Blue Mind to talk about the health of our oceans is an important aspect of educating children on the importance of water and how it connects and sustains us all. There are some great resources out there that help to not only educate, but also empower children.
We’re really proud to count Cal Major as one of our honorary graduates and we can’t help but be inspired by her when we think about Blue Mind. Here is her story as she told it to our students…
“It’s 4am. I’m in the middle of the sea in Scotland approaching one of the most dangerous headlands in the British Isles. I’ve been on the water for 5 hours already, on my stand-up paddleboard, which is basically a glorified surfboard. I have a very narrow window of time to get around this headland, but all I have to navigate with to get there is a GPS watch and a lighthouse on the point flashing every 30 seconds. Apart from that, it’s pitch black. The body of water I’m in also happens to be a military firing range.
"Why am I here? I’m attempting to stand-up paddleboard the entire length of the UK. It’s never been done before. (Note: It has been done now because Cal did it!).
"Rewind 2 years, and I was just setting to paddle the entire Cornish coast to Croyde. I had moved to Plymouth in 2014, and took up SUP. I very quickly rekindled a deep love and respect for the ocean. But I was finding plastic on every beach I went to, after every surf, every SUP. I had to do something about it. So my mission around the Cornish coast was to talk to people about plastic, and bring some positive solutions to this enormous issue.
"I know a lot of us will care deeply about our environment, and will have been quite affected by the issues it currently faces - climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the collapse of ecosystems, plastic pollution. It can feel incredibly overwhelming looking into the eyes of these issues and wondering how on earth one person can do something to make a difference.
"One of my favourite quotes is from Jane Goodall, it goes: “I like to envision the whole world as a jigsaw puzzle... If you look at the whole picture, it is overwhelming and terrifying, but if you work on your little part of the jigsaw and know that people all over the world are working on their little bits, that's what will give you hope.”
"There’s another reason to protect our planet and our natural world. It is crucial for our wellbeing. Spending hours at a time on the ocean helped me to realise how much noise there is in our society, and how crucial it is for us to find time and peace in nature.
"Always make sure to take time out for yourself, and if you haven’t tried it yet, time out in nature is an incredible way of rebalancing the scales.”
Stress is implicated in many modern health care diseases. Remember cortisol? That scary sounding hormone we learnt about earlier. Well, it turns out lots of cortisol leads to inflammation. This is why stress is not only bad for our mental health, but also our physical health too.
There is global interest in the idea of ‘green prescriptions’ these are social prescriptions for people suffering from mental health problems whereby they can access more nature and green spaces. BlueHealth, an organisation studying the effects of blue spaces in cities, are exploring the effects of water on our mental health and they are promoting the idea of ‘blue prescriptions’ too.
It’s not just the ocean that makes us feel good because canals, rivers, lakes and even fountains are important in our connection to water and our happy selves. Spending a minimum of two hours a week in blue spaces is recommended. Any more is a bonus.
But of course, it’s not always that simple. Living closer to blue spaces is more important for people on a lower household income, because they may have fewer resources to access these spaces further away. Others are less mobile and so are extremely limited in their access to blue spaces. Researchers have been trying to bring the magic of the sea, into care homes using Virtual Reality (VR) headsets and 360° interactive recordings of the sea.
“Blue mind and green mind are great. They are about relationships. If we have a relationship with the seal that we see, or the moss, or the seaweed, or the crab, or we have a relationship with the smell of the sea, or the smell of the river in autumn as it comes through peatiness or the colours of the leaves or the birdsong, then we feel good.
"I could go to the same outdoor location every single day and it would be different, because every single day you’d see the fine nuances. if I can introduce people to that then we can start to talk about the environmental crises facing our world.”
Dr Mark Leather, Associate Professor of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning at Plymouth Marjon University
You might not need convincing of the awesome power and tranquillity of the sea. However, understanding its effects is powerful if you care about mental health, the environment, and the future health of our cities.
Plymouth Sound is now the UK’s first National Marine Park. The aim is to protect wildlife, promote businesses and provide more people with access to the sea. The National Marine Park demonstrates that our seas are just as important as our land. The aim is to get far more people in, on, under and by the sea.
We live in a time of mental health crisis. For societies to move forward, individuals must feel happy and connected to themselves. That journey can start by the water, it can start small and it can start today.