Water enhances our mental health

15 December 2022

Water is a vital nutrient which we need to survive and water in our environment can enhance our sense of wellbeing and happiness.

Visual images of water in our environment are known to enhance our mood whether they are the natural scenery in our environment or a travel advertisement of a beach with white sand and blue sea. Many of our leisure activities involve water including swimming, surfing, sailing, water sports, fishing, walking on the beach or alongside a river or lake. We all know the importance of drinking water to life and good health and that our bodies are composed of 50% to 75% water. But what is it about water in our environment, also known as blue space, that enhances our sense of wellbeing and happiness.

Being in nature is known to be good for our mental health. Green spaces such as forests and blue spaces such as the beach or a river or lake help us to relax and disconnect from stress in our lives. It may be a bracing sea breeze, the gentle lapping of waves or the glint of sunshine on a rippling surface, there is something deeply restorative about being in or near water. Historically many people were sent to take in the sea air or to drink from natural springs to recover from illness. This often included bathing in the sea or the springs. Water was seen as a therapeutic option in times when there were limited alternative treatments. Today water is still seen as bringing the benefit of relaxation and stress reduction. We even bring water into our daily living spaces with garden ponds and fish tanks; which may even be a feature of the entrance or waiting areas in a doctor’s clinic.

Blue spaces may increase physical activity and also social opportunities. Exercise options in water are extensive whether long distance swimming, surfing, sailing or walking beside the water on a beach or alongside a lake or river. Outdoor activities such as these are also good to boost vitamin D levels and build social connections. Regular attendance at the “dog beach” brings social encounters with other dog owners. While swimming is usually a solitary activity, groups such as the “icebergers” who swim at the beach all year round bring together a disparate range of participants starting their day early with a swim. Surfers look out for each other with an unspoken camaraderie and sailing requires a crew.

The sound of water is inherently soothing and can assist with meditation. This can be the babble of a stream, the gurgle of a fountain, the thunder of a large waterfall, waves can lap at the shore or crash onto the sand or rocks. The ebb and flow of tides change the appearance of the beach at different times of day. As we walk along a beach we see changing patterns in the sand and we can watch the waves form, crest and then crash down. We can stand at the water’s edge feeling the water lapping at our feet. Sometimes we need to run quickly to avoid a larger than expected wave. Focusing on these natural features at the beach helps us to be mindful which can enable us to let go of stress and anxiety.

When we are sailing, surfing or swimming we need to tune into the natural forces such as the motion of the wind or the movement of the water. When we are fishing we need to focus on baiting the hook, casting the line and then wait to feel the tug. Again mindful activities. In Australia we can access bodies of water free of charge. Beaches, lakes and rivers attract people of all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.. People are there to relax and enjoy their time, often with family and friends. The pace is slow, food is eaten, books are read, children and dogs play or there may be a friendly game of beach cricket. There is a sense of timelessness and freedom from pressure.

Water seems to be naturally calming and to bring a sense of peace. A sense of happiness associated with water may be due to childhood holiday memories. Floating in water may bring back sensations from our time in utero. There is a unique light associated with water due to reflection from the sky and we may see a mirror image of our surroundings in still water. Large bodies of water may bring a sense of awe and an awareness of creation and the natural environment. The power of water can also provide a very necessary sense of caution. We are aware of strong currents, sudden changes in water levels and a risk to our safety. Recent flood events in Victoria illustrate well the damage and destruction that water can bring.

For many doctors the beach and other blue spaces are their happy place. These places provide a short respite from the ongoing pressure of working in healthcare and enable restoration. In the words of Dr Geoff Toogood:

Swimmers all know or feel the “in the zone or flow” moment, especially when they feel at one with the water. My most perfect “in the flow” moments come when I am body surfing; the feeling of waiting to catch a wave and then the glorious moments of riding it to shore. It’s a brief and momentary engulfment by nature – the complete “in the zone or flow”.

Kay Dunkley
AMA Victoria doctor wellbeing and mentoring


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