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Blue Care The healing power and potential of the deep blue sea

Reclaiming our connection with our watery origins in the ancient sea is an essential part of our human wellbeing and sense of identity and belonging as islanders, writes Easkey Britton.

AS A LIFE-LONG surfer and researcher in Ocean and Human Health, I’m interested in how direct experiences with water, especially the sea, might facilitate a greater sense of connection and wellbeing.

Belonging to an island nation, the potential of water environments to heal intrigues me even more.

Why are we drawn to water?

We experience the world, and comprehend it, through our senses. Water environments leave a powerful imprint in our bodies and minds. It is such a multi-sensory experience, which is important for our health.

It’s visually stimulating with a thousand shades of constantly moving blue.

Wave-exposed coastlines release negative ions believed to alter our biochemistry and light up our mood, relieving stress.

Smells and sounds of water all have an effect on our sense of wellbeing. And that’s before you even dive into it.

We Live in an Age of Disconnect

The sea remains in the saltwater of our blood, our cells, our DNA from when the first animals came ashore and took up a land life. In the words of environmentalist Rachel Carson, we are all linked with this watery origin in the ancient sea.

Unfortunately, there persists a strong yet artificial divide between society and the sea. Despite society being both shaped by and shaping the state of the ocean. This feeds a sense separateness.

Part of my work explores how might we overcome this disconnect and recognise how entangled we are with our ocean, and the water bodies that flow into it.

As it was put by the World Health Organisation:

Most of the earth’s surface is covered by water, and most of the human body is composed of water – two facts illustrating the critical linkages between water, health and ecosystems.

The World Health Organisation recognises how essential water environments are for promoting health. Despite this, global evidence of disconnect from our natural surroundings continues to grow.

The world’s ecosystems are coming under increasing threat from human pressures, in particular waterways, coasts and oceans, also known as ‘blue space’.

This, in turn, poses human health risks from environments that are polluted and degraded.

Disconnect from our natural world is not unrelated to a growing social disconnect.

One of the greatest crises of our time is the rise of mental health issues, and growing stress and anxiety are linked to the fact that we’ve become disconnected.

Water and Wellbeing

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.

More recently, there are a growing number of initiatives across policy, practice and academia that are seeking to better understand the complex interdependence between blue space and health.

For example, the NEAR-Health project is a research initiative to qualify how important nature is for human health and wellbeing in Ireland.

As part of that project, we carried out the first global systematic review of health and wellbeing benefits of therapeutic water-based activities, a form of nature-prescribing or, ‘blue care’.

The review highlights the need to improve our understanding of the restorative health benefits of actively engaging with water.

It is evident from the review that activities in the sea or at the coast are the most studied.

These therapeutic interventions were aimed at a diverse mix of people with multiple health issues, in particular, psychological. Surfing, or ‘surf therapy’ was the most popular activity used to deliver blue care.

Findings suggest that part of the health benefits are linked to the challenging nature of surfing – different coasts, winds, currents, seasons require constant adaptation, and responding to nature at the moment.

Challenge can be an important factor for sustainable wellbeing and self-worth. Other blue care activities included sailing, dragon-boat racing, canoeing, kayaking, fly-fishing, diving and swimming.

Freedom from Earthly Limits

Shared experiences in water matter with high potential for positive social wellbeing outcomes.

Learning to sail in a group, for example, can help enhance a sense of belonging, social connection and identity through shared experiences at sea.

The connective properties of water may also play a key role.

The body’s response to waves (movement) and skills required to surf (balance) was attributed to enhanced balance for amputees, as well as pain reduction and reduced dependency on narcotics attributed to the psychological effect of surfing.

The absence of gravity in salt-water can be particularly therapeutic, altering bodily sensations and improving mobility, which improves heart and lung functioning and is an important muscular workout, especially for those with disabilities, spinal-chord injury or amputations.

Again, being immersed in water can offer a sense of freedom from earthly limits:

Diving turns me back into a human being, I go down there and I’ve got the freedom and I’m back to being a person.

Although the mechanisms of how these activities and settings contribute to wellbeing are not yet well understood we do know blue care has the ability to improve our health, especially our psychological wellbeing.

There is something about crossing the threshold from our land-based life and entering the fluid and unpredictable state of the sea that allows us to leave behind or even momentarily escape the concerns, worries, stresses and pains associated with our land-life.

The findings emphasise a multi-dimensional view of health, with participants experiencing positive changes to the sense of self, health and wellbeing in the short-term.

Turning Barriers into Bridges

How long the benefits are sustained remains unknown, and not all outcomes are universal or always positive.

A number of barriers highlight the complexity of how we experience and access blue space. Social norms and class persist around water-sports and can leave some people from lower-income backgrounds feeling socially and culturally excluded.

The funding mechanisms that many of these nature-based programmes typically depend upon can limit the ability to create longer-term programmes and more sustainable initiatives.

A ‘mood-dip’ identified by some studies can be caused by the challenge of the social demands of daily life after ‘returning to shore.’

Barriers persist around water quality, safety and access to healthy environments, especially in more socially deprived communities. Blue space is not only a place of healing but can represent a place of loss and tragedy.

There is a need for the co-design of nature-based health programmes, especially for participants with a diverse mix of needs, and approaches that consider the cultural aspect of water connection.

The review highlights how much we have to benefit from being in, on, near water and actively engaging with our blue spaces. And how much we risk losing if we fail to understand how dependent our wellbeing is on the health of our waterways, seas and coasts.

Our need for a watery reconnection is a conversation we need to take into our communities, our work, our health care, and our governments, building on the success of cross-departmental policies like Healthy Ireland.

Reclaiming our connection with our watery origins in the ancient sea may not be the solution to all the current global ‘crises’ but it is an essential part of our human wellbeing and sense of identity and belonging as islanders.

Dr Easkey Britton is a post-doctoral researcher at NUIG with the EU-H2020 funded SOPHIE project on Oceans and Human Health.

To learn more, read the full ‘Blue Care’ review

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