Blue mind theory and the healing powers of water

A computerised image of different coloured head silhouettes merging into one another.

This year has undoubtedly been anxiety-inducing — the solution, according to a marine biologist, could lie in our undeniable connection to water

By Chloe Sachdev     Illustration and animation by Alexis Jamet    Wednesday 23 September, 2020    Short read

There is no denying the feel-good factor of water. The first ripples of summer, holidays, the wild frothy ocean, and wild swimming in lakes and rivers. Even hot showers on cold days and vice versa. It’s a surge of adrenaline, balm for the soul, and the feeling of absolute calm and freedom.

This lust to be near or under water goes deeper than just holiday craving. In 2013, marine biologist Dr Wallace J Nichols, author of the bestselling book, Blue Mind, took a deep dive into our emotional, physical and psychological connections to water: how it makes you happier and more connected, drawing on neuroscience and human behaviour to explore why it has such a positive effect on our wellbeing. 

Blue mind theory is a legitimate and now trendy branch of the mindfulness landscape. A host of studies by neuroscientists have shown that water reduces cortisol levels (the stress hormone), slows our breathing and heart rate, and allows us to gently move into a mildly meditative mood. As a result, we are calmer, more creative and in a much more connected state of mind. Perhaps this is why wild swimming in the UK has grown exponentially over the past few years, as stated in research by Sport England. 

According to Dr Nichols, our moods should flit between ‘blue’ and ‘red’ mind: ‘When we are anxious, there’s uncertainty. We’re overstimulated, there’s a lot of technology, and lots of screens, but it serves as our fight or flight and can be useful when harnessed for good,’ he says. 

However, it can go too far and turn into ‘grey’ mind, which means burnout, breakdown, disconnection and even mild depression. ‘The goal is to move between red, which is our action mode, and blue, which is calm and restorative, and avoid the grey,’ he adds. As we practise blue mind, we’re leaving the sources of red behind – the mental, visual and auditory stimuli that distract us. ‘Blue mind is as much about what it takes away from us as what it gives us.’
A computerised image of different coloured head silhouettes merging into one another.
With blue mind theory statistics mounting, more and more people are turning to water for its healing benefits and restorative power to combat physical and mental ailments, such as PTSD and addiction. In 2014, a study by the American Journal Of Occupational Therapy on the effect of surf therapy with 11 veterans, showed reduced symptoms of PTSD and depression. 

‘Surfing and other water sports provide alternative rewards by satisfying the brain’s desire for stimulation, novelty, and a neurochemical “rush”, while also getting addicts out of their typical environments,’ explains Dr Nichols. 

Building on this theory, Josh Dickson founded the psychotherapy surf retreat, Resurface, to help people in addiction recovery achieve a ‘flow’ state, ‘where you’re totally focused in the present,’ he says. ‘Think of it as effortless effort where you’re completely at one with yourself and focused on a single task. So, you can’t think about your mortgage, marriage, work, etc. Afterwards, people are much more open to do therapeutic work, so it really accelerates the process.’ 

Cut to 2020, and a chunk of the world is slowly emerging from isolation bubbles having experienced red and grey mind states as a ‘new normal’. And so the call to submerge into water – be it pools, lakes or oceans – has become a real longing. 

Urbanites are now looking beyond yoga studios to surfing, diving and float therapy as new-wave solutions to wash away the anxieties from the past year and connect with their blue mind. Dickson has already seen an influx at Resurface, driving him to add more retreats based on other aspects, such as creativity and collaboration. So, for anyone looking for an excuse to escape, it’s officially time to dive in. 

For more information on blue mind theory, Dr Nichols hosts monthly and free Zoom sessions on his website talking about blue mind and how to practise it.
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