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A few years ago I went on a solo trip to Iceland. While visiting the natural hot springs in the Blue Lagoon, I waded neck-high through the warmest and bluest water I had ever seen. Champagne in hand and wrapped in a luxurious mud mask, I remember feeling overwhelmed with joy. There I first wondered about the relationship between two things that so often appear side by side: joy and water.
My The love for water is of course not unique. I bet most of us entertain dreamy summer fantasies of cool falls or know the calm bliss of seeing light dance from the surface of a lake or pool.
But have you ever wondered where this feeling of peace and relaxation actually comes from? It̵
In the book Blue ghost, Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols provides an argument as to why he believes we feel better around or in the water and inevitably lead to healthier lives.
One observation he makes is how people tend to flock to places near water on vacation. (A 2019 survey found that “beach destinations” are the number one choice for people in the United States, with “cruises” ranking third.)
I myself relate heavily to it. I long for how I feel about water. Whether it’s a 5 mile hike to a waterfall, a ride on the PCH, or diving in waves in Malibu with dolphins swimming in the distance, whenever I want to escape, water is the first place I go I turn.
According to a Michigan State University study, that impulse to seek water to escape our busy lives may have to do with the fact that being close to water affects our psyche. The study found that even looking at blue rooms was associated with a lower degree of “psychological distress”.
Did you know that amniotic fluid is 98 percent water and electrolytes? In this tiny watery apartment we develop into our ready-to-be-born selves. And while we cannot remember those early days, many believe that mimicking the conditions of the uterus is a route to true relaxation.
Do you remember sensory deprivation tanks? Sometime in the early 2000s, people started paying a small fortune to float in uterine-like spaces and relax on the next level. These rooms, which are soundproof, lightproof and filled with a foot or less of salt water, are designed to be as close as possible to the weightlessness that you experience in the uterus.
One study showed that twelve float sessions over a period of 7 weeks were associated with a positive impact on anxiety, symptoms of depression, sleep, tension headaches and neck pain.
When I dive in the ocean, it feels like my stress is floating in the water. And it turns out that an exciting shock from being immersed in cold water sets off a chain of chemical reactions in our brain that have a calming effect on our nervous system.
According to this study, an instant exposure to cold water for just 3 minutes can instantly reduce stress and help you calm the water inside. This is because once our bodies get used to the cold water, the opposite of fight or flight sets in, resting and digesting. This relaxes the body and lets it know that there is no present danger.
Go back to Blue ghostAn essential part of Nichols’ theory is simple being Near Water gives us access to a semi-meditative state, which he describes as “drifting”. Drifting is a special form of attention when we are busy with the world around us but not focused on doing something.
As I read this, I remembered the cruises I took as a kid. How the most relaxing times on the ship were “days at sea”. Long days when we only drove back and forth between the ports. The feeling of knowing that I was surrounded by water for miles in every direction and had nothing to do brought about the meditative feeling that Nichols is proud of in his book.
Although I may have been a kid, days at sea have made my whole family feel that way. It was a day just to be relaxed.
Some of my favorite memories from my youth are water. Growing up on the San Francisco Bay, my friends and I took day trips to the beach on the hottest summer days. We spent the whole day running away from the water as it grazed the shore, enjoying the feeling of the water rushing down our backs as we dived beneath the breaking waves. When I close my eyes I can still hear her laugh and see her smile.
Summer may be over for now, but my memories of water will leave me floating through the colder weather. Until then, I take winter swimming, cold showers, and every opportunity to soak in some water.