The first time I visited Australia from England I headed to the beach at dusk with a friend. Sitting at the edge of the surf, I looked out into infinity and felt something click. All the anxiety, doubt and confusion I’d been grappling with over a looming life decision seemed to melt away. The sound of the water and the coolness of the deep blue lapping my toes wrapped me in stillness. I took a few deep breaths and let myself believe everything was going to work out the way it should.
That decision — whether I should move to Australia and after four years of living there — is a decision I’ve never regretted. I like to think back and thank my time by the ocean on that first trip for helping me let go of the struggle I was facing. Over the last few years, I’ve embraced a more water-loving Australian lifestyle with wonderful results for my emotional health. It’s also led me to learn more about a rarely mentioned psychological phenomenon: the healing power of blue space for wellbeing.
What are blue spaces?
We all know about green spaces, such as walking in the woods, hiking through mountains or spending time in a flourishing garden. Their healing effects are well documented. Doctors globally have begun issuing “green prescriptions”, encouraging patients to spend time in green spaces for their mental health. The concept is backed by research advising how green spaces benefit psychological wellbeing and promote healthy social engagement.
Blue space, however, is the counterpoint to a green space, where bodies of water can have an equally calming and meditative impact on your state of mind. It’s why we feel the ocean speak to us. But it’s not just the ocean … rivers, lakes, canals, natural waterfalls — even fountains — all count as blue space.
Where the science on the positive impact of green spaces is well documented and publicised, the science for blue spaces has been less so. This is despite a decade of research proving the same point: being close to a blue space is just as good for our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.
I was recently introduced to Places We Swim, a beautiful collaboration between creative couple Caroline Clements and Dillon Seitchik-Reardon, which wonderfully highlights the reverence of blue spaces across Australian communities. Through a series of curated guides, Caroline and Dillon are documenting places around Australia that invite people to swim. From lap pools to ocean pools, rockpools to hot springs, Places We Swim (2018) covers the breadth of Australia and showcases 60 best locations to swim, dive, jump, paddle and float around the country.
“Our travels across Australia really showcased to us that no matter where you are, there is a connection to water, whether that’s coastal swimming or inland pools and lakes. Swimming is so innate to us,” says Caroline.
After moving to Sydney, Caroline and Dillon realised that swimming and access to blue spaces was a huge component within their new community. Places We Swim: Sydney was published in 2020 to celebrate this culture. “It’s very much a water-based city and swimming is a huge part of the day-to-life,” reflects Caroline. “Within urban planning, green spaces are regularly cited but blue spaces not so much. The community definitely gathers and celebrates these spaces and it’s really interesting that we now have a specific recognition and language around ‘blue spaces’ to acknowledge their importance psychologically and socially.”
The impact of living near blue space
Links between emotional and psychological wellbeing and our environment are growing and becoming an increasing area of interest within health psychology. A 2013 study explored the impact of natural environments on happiness. One of the largest of its kind (with 20,000 participants), the research asked individuals to use their smartphones and record their feelings and their environment. Participants who lived near a blue space — usually a coastal setting — rated consistently higher feelings of wellbeing compared with those who lived in urban environments.
The research has created an interesting intersection between health psychology and climate researchers. BlueHealth is an interdisciplinary research team aiming to understand better the connections between blue spaces, climate and health. The team is currently collating the results of the most extensive international study to date on the topic of blue space, with results expected by the end of 2020. Dr Matthew White, senior lecturer with the University of Exeter and a leading environmental psychologist and researcher with BlueHealth, advises there are three established ways water is linked to positive health and wellbeing:
Environmentally beneficial factors
Coastal areas tend to have higher amounts of sunshine, leading to higher levels of vitamin D in the individuals who frequent them more regularly. Water-based areas also tend to be less polluted.
Greater promotion of physical activity
Dr White has found that individuals who live near water are more physically active than those in urban areas. Regular exercise has a long-standing body of research connecting it with better emotional and mental health outcomes.
Water promotes psychological restoration
Psychological restoration is the recovery of depleted resources (such as our attention and emotions, stress recovery or social engagement) through engagement with the environment. A review of 35 studies by researchers in Barcelona found consistent evidence of positive associations between blue space exposure and mental health.
Deeply engaging with blue spaces has the potential for us to be more mindful when we’re in them. “What we find is that when you spend time walking on the beach, there’s a transition towards thinking outwards towards the environment, thinking about those patterns and putting your life in perspective,” advises Dr White.
For me, visiting the ocean is now synonymous with letting go. Whether it’s still and calm or rough with crashing waves, as soon as I see that blue stretch out before me, I feel the tension I didn’t even realise I was holding leave my body.
Paying attention to your emotions, state of mind, stress levels and your body while you’re in a blue space could be a revealing experience. As you begin to make connections between how you feel and your environment, you can use these connections for improved wellbeing.
5 fave secret swim holes
- Bellerive Beach, located just south of Hobart
- Bay of Fires, located on the North-East Coast
- South Beach, located in Fremantle, Western Australia
- Brighton Beach in Melbourne
- Rottnest Island, located in Western Australia
Elaine is a freelance writer and psychologist-in-training, currently residing in Nipaluna (Hobart), Tasmania. She is fascinated by the ways we learn from our experiences to become more authentic versions of ourselves and the power of storytelling. You can find more of her words online at wordswithelaine.com.