Current facts and figures highlight the amount of stress we all experience on a daily basis as individuals in modern society. The ‘always on’ lifestyle can eventually result in anxiety, depression, and memory problems. In turn this can lead to a reliance on alcohol and drugs for relaxation or, in some extreme cases, suicide.
For individuals living with neurological conditions and/or disabilities, day-to-day life poses numerous barriers both physical and mental. These barriers can amplify stress levels and mean that simple tasks many of us take for granted, can prove extremely challenging.
Such high levels of stress can have implications on one’s cardiovascular, immune, digestive, nervous, and musculoskeletal systems. Stress also lowers levels of serotonin and dopamine, making individuals feel drained and down.
In recent years scientific researchers have started to look carefully at the calming effect nature has on the human mind, with increased involvement from neuroscientists. Such studies are continually finding that natural bodies of water can help to enhance nature’s healing qualities.
It is now thought by some that taking to the sea can have a significant effect on our health and overall wellbeing. “According to current research in cognitive neuroscience (which now echoes much historical wisdom), when you spend time around water, what happens is very good indeed.” Nichols, W 2015.
“‘Blue Mind’ is the term to describe water-associated peace, in contrast to ‘Red Mind’ which neuroscientist Catherine Franssen, PhD, describes as “edgy high, characterised by stress, anxiety, fear, and maybe even a little of anger and despair.”
Our Brains on Water
Merzenich explains, “You can look at the ocean or water as a normalizing background. In a natural environment on or near water, there’s a high degree of predictability. Unlike a busy street, a body of water is largely the same from moment to moment. The background we see is fairly controlled, which allows the emotions centre of the brain to relax. Likewise, if and when the brain notices a change in the background such as a wave or sea life there is a sense of novelty accompanied by a hit of dopamine.”
Throughout the course of our existence, humans have been drawn to water and have actively immersed themselves in it. This can be found in the ancient Egyptian, Indian, and Roman civilizations. In the Middle Ages places such as Baden-Baden and Evian preached the physical and mental benefits of drinking and bathing in local waters.
There are now studies attempting to scientifically prove what humans have known all along. Immersion in water reduces stress, partly by balancing the flux between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. We believe this is the case for everyone, whatever physical and neurological condition they may be living with.
“A 2006 study found that spa bathing significantly reduced levels of salivary cortisol in college students. Other studies have found that hot tubs and five-minute hot showers can measurably lower anxiety levels. And hydrotherapy was shown to help reduce the psychological stress and physical symptoms of a group of 139 people with rheumatoid arthritis.” Wallace J Nichols 2015.
Water activities not only provide the ‘neuro typical’ with benefits, but also those with mental health conditions and Autism. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Condition can often have significant sensory difficulties being both hyper and/or hypo sensitive, meaning over or under reactive to stimuli in their day-to-day environment.
This can be to any or all of the seven senses: touch, taste, sight, sound, smell, vestibular and proprioception. The ocean can provide a safe, consistent and supported environment which not only supports us, but also provides a hydrostatic pressure that surrounds our body.
“A mildly meditative state characterised by calm, peace, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.” Dr. Wallace J Nichols.
We strongly recommend this book for further information on Blue Mind!
Ocean Therapy is a relatively new but internationally recognised natural form of therapy. It uses the ocean and water sports as a medium to better the lives of those who live with neurological and physical disabilities and/or conditions. These can vary from but are not limited to: Low Muscle Tone, ASC, ADHD, Cystic Fibrosis and PTSD.
The aim is to enable individuals, whatever their disabilities and/or conditions, to participate in a few hours of water sports, provide each of them the opportunity to have their own unique and valuable experience. In doing this it is hoped that each individual will leave feeling empowered, relaxed and confident in their abilities, transferring this into their everyday lives. Not only this, but Ocean Therapy has been noted to relieve physical and psychological symptoms. Dr Wallace J Nichols noted that water can help us access the state called ‘flow’ or ‘hyper focus’ where we connect to the default mode network, or daydreaming parts of our brain. This in turn can restore our ability to focus and perform cognitive and creative tasks with greater ease.
In our experience, being in, under, on, or around the water leaves you calmer, and with a more focused mindset. It can give your mind a break from the usual busyness and over stimulation of life and is the most natural form of respite. ‘Surfers stoke’ has been described numerous times as, a blissful Zen-like state that comes with catching and riding waves.
Water sports can be powerful enough to help people recover from addictions and conditions such as post-traumatic stress. “It’s a huge serge of dopamine, huge natural high. Your body is a pharmacy; You can create in analogue from everything that is available from a pharmacist. This is not hippy dippy stuff, this is neuroscience.” Wallace J Nichols 2017
Healing in and on the water can happen by creating excitement in the brain. Surfing, Kayaking, sailing or paddle boarding, produces a natural dopamine high that serves as a replacement of the effects drugs and alcohol hold on addicts. The brain’s desire for stimulation, novelty and a neurochemical rush is fulfilled in such water sports. It also means individuals are out of their usual environments, providing new settings, friends (connection) and routines that can be hugely beneficial to addicts, war veterans and everyone alike.
“The goal of surf therapy is not to teach people to be surfers. It’s to get them to use surfing to change their brain chemistry. You stand on the beach and get amped up, and all kinds of chemicals rush through the brain. Different ones are in play when you’re paddling out or have a monster wave chasing you to the beach. All of those chemicals can have incredible effects on how people cope with depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental-health issues.” Bryan Flores, who works with the Monterey County Mental Health Commission.
Now, as nice as it is to be in, on and around natural forms of water, you don’t always have to be physically near it to experience the benefits it can hold. A huge advantage of water is that you don’t need to meditate to realize its healing effects. Even recorded sights and sounds of water have a healing and relaxing effect. In 1997, 10 cancer patients who were experiencing chronic pain, watched a nature video that included 15 minutes of the sounds of ocean waves waterfalls, and splashing creeks. After viewing the video, patients experienced a 20 to 30 percent reduction in the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol.
In our opinion we think everyone can agree that it feels good to be in, on, under or simply around the water. Not only can it reduce our anxieties and stress helping us to find some perspective on life, but it is continually being proven more and more to ease symptoms and pain for some of our most vulnerable.
The ocean boosts creativity, settles us and helps us to reconnect with Mother Nature and the people we share it with. “Dolphins surf to strengthen friendships, develop social skills and for the sheer exhilaration of it.” Attenborough, D 2017. This shows that not only humans can benefit from our ocean and the beauty it holds. For us here at Healing Waves, the benefits of the ocean are undeniable and glaringly obvious. Whether for cognitive, emotional, psychological or physiological benefits, such a strong natural and accessible source of therapy/medicine should be prescribed to everyone more regularly. It is not just our aim to provide a high quality-service, but to also advocate for Ocean Therapy, Blue Mind and Blue Health, taking this message to the highest and most serious conversations out there.
The newly formed Institute for Surf Therapy has made it their mission to find more answers around the benefits that our ocean holds, whilst working to develop simple tools that can help connect more people to the water. The Institute comprises a global network of organisations using Surf Therapy to promote physical and mental well-being in differing social contexts.
The Institute launched at a workshop in Cape Town on the 25th – 30th September 2017, joining together a founding eight surf organisations – Waves For Change, A Walk on Water, Kind Surf, Surfers Healing, the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation, the Wave Project, Wave by Wave and Waves of Wellness. Alongside representatives from The World Surf League (WSL), The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) and research experts from the University of Edinburgh and the University of New South Wales.
This group is continuing to share existing research and practical experience to define the various outcomes Surf Therapy organisations are seeing around the world. They aim to develop a simple handbook that should help surf organisations structure programmes and measure impact. They support the growth of new projects and facilitate access to Surf Therapy programmes globally!
Advocating the work of the Surf Therapy Institute is again our main man, ocean science specialist and author of international best seller ‘Blue Mind’ Dr Wallace J Nichols: “Ten years ago, for many it was unimaginable that doctors and medical professionals would prescribe surf therapy as an important part of a healing regime. Ten years from now it will be common. This endeavour is going to save, improve and heal lives because waves are medicine for those who need them most. It gives us additional justification for protection and restoration of waterways and oceans, adding powerful new tools to the conservation and environmental communication toolbox.”
By bringing together the best researchers with experienced practitioners in the sector. It is the hope of the Institute to advance the understanding of what Surf and Ocean Therapy can achieve, and improve the capacity of organisations worldwide to deliver impactful programmes; that can ultimately change lives.
We hope the above research has given you some more insight into what we do and why we do it.
Below are just a few examples of places delivering Ocean Therapy across the globe:
England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales: