- Blue spaces can be good for us.
- The concept is proving to be a powerful, practical tool for mental health.
- It has surprising benefits.
Amidst the gentle rock of the sea, the breeze tickling their skin and the distant caw of seagulls, six people in lifejackets close their eyes for a “mindful check-in”. They are aboard the deck of Irene, a 100 ft-tall (30m) ship with timber frames and majestic sails which is cruising off the coast of Cornwall in the UK. These kinds of mindfulness exercises have become increasingly mainstream in the last decade, but they tend to be practiced from the comfort of the home or a therapist’s office – not the deck of a ship.
UK charity Sea Sanctuary, which operates Irene, believes its combination of marine activities and therapy provides a uniquely beneficial form of mental health support. A practitioner of “blue health” – the concept that being in or near blue spaces such as rivers, lakes and the sea boosts our emotional wellbeing – the charity has been organizing trips around the Cornwall coastline since 2006. Many of the charity’s client sailors, largely people who experience anxiety and depression, sign up to a voyage to benefit from sessions with the ship’s therapist while also learning a new skill.
Steve Ridholls, a former police officer, is sailing with Sea Sanctuary to calm the anxiety and PTSD he battles. “I used to talk people down from cliffs and bridges or respond to suicides and car crashes,” he says. When Homo sapiens first evolved some 300,000 years ago, we lived in grasslands and forests, next to lakes and rivers. It wasn’t until 2007 that we became a majority-urban species. But as urbanization increases, our access to nature continues to dwindle. Just looking at natural scenery has been found to cause rapid beneficial psychological and physiological changes in salivary cortisol, blood flow, blood pressure and brain activity.
Magic Of Blue Spaces
“Blue spaces provide us with distractions that take our mind away from the day-to-day hassles of life,” says Kate Campbell, a health psychology researcher at Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Campbell believes humans have “an innate predisposition” towards natural environments that once benefitted us as an evolving species. Natural spaces that provided pre-modern humans with food, comfort and safety are likely to provide a similar sense of ease even in today’s urban world.
The concept of blue health emerged almost 10 years ago when researchers at the University of Sussex asked 20,000 people to record their feelings at random times. They collected over a million responses and found that people were by far the happiest when they were in blue spaces.
Niamh Smith, a researcher at GCU and co-author of the study, says the team found an impact on both mental and general health from spending time in blue spaces. “People really value the therapeutic space,” says Smith. “They love the sound of running water, having a reflective space to quietly sit, a place to clear your head away from the busy-ness of daily life.”
“My depression comes in cycles,” says Harune Akthar, speaking from his West London home. Around ten years ago, the 27-year-old was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, ADHD, depression and anxiety. “When I had a bad day, it would take three to four days for me to come out of it,” he says. For years, Akthar tried a range of different therapies but didn’t find any that helped him. Then, in June this year, his doctor referred him to the Blue Prescribing scheme run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), a charity. After the first day, he didn’t think it was for him. By the end of the second, he couldn’t wait to go back.
“When people consider what constitutes a psychologically restorative environment, they frequently report a preference for blue space,” says Jonathan Reeves, a WWT health and wellbeing researcher. Watery environments, says Reeves, are less cognitively demanding than the everyday sights and sounds of our busy lives – and allow for “soft fascination”.
In a bid to bring blue health to more people, some experts are turning their attention to creating – or rediscovering – watery spaces within urban environments. Nearly 2.4 billion people around the world – that’s about 40% of the total global population – live within 100km (62 miles) of the sea. Yet more people live alongside rivers or on the shores of lakes. Its network of epidemiologists, public health experts and urban planners have carried out experiments to tweak the design of blue spaces in cities, measuring the impacts of these changes on human health. In one project in Plymouth, UK, Blue Health worked in communities to rejuvenate run-down public blue spaces.
James Grellier, an epidemiologist at the University of Exeter and researcher at Blue Health, believes these results send a “key message” to policymakers. But the benefits of blue spaces, he says, largely depend on their quality. “These spaces have the potential for health, not just the health of the ecosystem but for the people who might visit.” says Grellier.
As more people immerse themselves in blue spaces, there are of course public safety aspects to consider. Even for the experienced swimmer, water can be dangerous, and judging tides, temperatures and currents tricky.
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