Understanding how water environments are good for wellbeing

Dr Easkey Britton

Posted: 10 July, 2017

Dr Easkey Britton, founder of Like Water, is a big-wave surfer and marine social scientist who is joining us for our July theme of Summer Pursuits. Her work explores the relationship between people and the sea, using her passion for the ocean to create social change and connection across cultures. In her current role as a postdoctoral fellow with the NEAR-Health Project at NUIG, she researches ‘Blue Health’, or how outdoor water environments and human health are linked and the restorative benefits of nature.

“Water is life, it cleanses”, Farnaz said as we moved around the circle of women sharing  experiences of what water means to us in our lives. We were a group of ten from very different backgrounds, ranging in age from 13 to 43. “Being in the water makes me feel calm”, said Laleh. “Water takes away my tiredness”, Mina added. For others, it was their very first time to get into the water and they were hesitant and nervous but encouraged by the other women in the group. These women were participating in the Be Like Water  programme – an active, physical practice aimed at tapping into the more playful, creative and therapeutic qualities of water and the sea. This programme was initially developed by myself and Shirin Gerami (Iran’s first female triathlete) with minority groups of women and girls in Iran as a way to make surfing more accessible and to facilitate a greater body-self-nature connection.

This concept of water environments as therapeutic is nothing new. Water has been considered an active life-metaphor for millennia, with Taoist Lao Tzu writing in 6th century BC how, “Nothing in the world is softer than water. But for attacking the hard, the unyielding, it has no equal.” In Victorian times, seaside holidays were recommended by physicians for respite and recovery from illness and in Ireland holy wells continue to be important places for spiritual wellbeing and health promotion. A tradition since the 1800s in Ireland, the seaweed bath remains a vibrant part of coastal life and tourism. Seaweed is considered nature’s antiseptic with its high concentration of iodine. It is claimed that a hot seaweed bath offers relief from symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism and works wonders on cold and tired muscles after a surf on the west coast. More recently there has been growing interest in policy, practice and academia in how blue space (outdoor, natural aquatic environments such as rivers, lakes, coasts, beaches, sea) impacts our health and wellbeing. ‘Blue space’ has been defined by therapeutic geographers Ronan Foley and Thomas Kistemann as, “health-enabling places and spaces, where water is at the centre of a range of environments with identifiable potential for the promotion of human wellbeing.”

My current research with  the NEAR-Health Project at the National University of Ireland, Galway is one such project which explores how nature, including blue space, can help society attain and restore health. My bias as a life-long surfer has certainly influenced my desire to better understand what I’ve intuitively felt all my life, the power of the sea to heal and restore a sense of wellbeing. Emerging evidence suggests that physical activity in the sea, in particular surfing, has confirmed psychological as well as physical benefits. The crisis of our time is the rise of mental health issues, with at least 1 in 5 young people in Ireland experiencing a mental disorder. (It’s thought the figure is largely underestimated due to stigma). Organisations such as Liquid Therapy and Havin’ a Laugh are tapping into the sea and surfing to tackle mental health issues, and the surrounding stigma, in a novel way. Part of the health benefits are linked to the fact that surfing is challenging. It’s dynamic and you’re always learning. Different coasts, winds, currents, seasons mean you are constantly adapting, which has considerable health benefits for both body and mind. While surfing, you have to think quickly in response to nature, learn to let go of the need to be in control and become aware of your environment. Wave exposed coastlines could have added benefit with research suggesting that negative ions released by breaking waves are believed to alter our biochemistry and light up our mood, relieving stress. A recent study in England by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health found that even living near the coast can make us healthier.

As the following quotes from first-time water users during the Be Like Water session show, an outdoor aquatic experience like swimming or surfing can take us out of our heads and into the sensory world of our bodies, creating a sense of relaxation;

“I notice I feel lighter and calmer.” – Sanaz

“It’s easier when I relax my body, I feel more relaxed.” – Nasrin

And being immersed in an unpredictable, fluid environment can allow us to find our own sense of aliveness;

“I feel like I am flying — out there on the water you don’t think about any of your problems.” – Yasmin

How we are in relationship with each other and our environment matters. A shared and immersive experience can lead to greater sense of connectedness. When experienced in this way, surfing or simply being in water, has the potential to challenge notions of separateness and otherness by its fluid nature.  In the words of Shirin Gerami:

“Surfing can showcase the beauty of in our differences by allowing us to be truly who we are when we surrender to the playfulness of waves and wave-riding.”

So ask yourself, what if we could all be more like water?

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof. 

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