As someone healing from debilitating postpartum depression and anxiety, I've come to realize that a short walk near the ocean, a lake, or even a reservoir calms my anxious mind. In the cities where I've lived—New York City and Singapore—I have never been more than a few minutes from a river or a strait or a harbor, and I turn to them often in times of distress.
By now, it's well established that working and living environments have a profound effect on health, but little has been written specifically about the positive benefits of water until recently. The term green space refers to vegetation; blue spaces are all the visible waters in a place, including lakes, rivers, and coastal waters. Now, mounting scientific evidence supports my lived experience: that even urban "blue space" can induce therapeutic experiences.
"Water in all its forms can be the quickest shortcut to mindfulness and a shift into what I call 'blue mind' that I know of," says Wallace J. Nichols, a scientist and author of Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. When we're near water, he says, "Our brains switch into a different mode which can involve mind-wandering, creativity, and sleep, which are all known to be important to health, resilience, and productivity. Psychologists refer to water's changing uniformity as putting us in a state of 'soft fascination,' which can be highly restorative."
In a 2016 study, a team of researchers from New Zealand and the US found that just living within sight of water was linked to lower levels of psychological stress, even after accounting for income levels, which are often correlated with health outcomes. The study's data was collected in Wellington, an urban capital city surrounded by the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean. In another recent study, German researchers concluded that even being near human-made water features, such as city-center fountains, park ponds, and canals "induces [restorative] experiences [and] creates meaning."
It has become a habit that, on every Sunday, I go in search of such tranquility. In Singapore, I frequently return to a park developed on an abandoned granite quarry site, which now forms forms a scenic—and deep—pond. The park has meandering footpaths that lead to look-out points with breathtaking views. My mind enters a mildly meditative state, and I can feel my muscles, especially those in my back and shoulders, relax. But why does proximity to water make me feel centered and free?
Here, the evidence is scant, and much of the research relies on self-reported indicators of health and well-being. Some medical professionals, including Gail Saltz, a professor of psychiatry at Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, postulate this draw to water is connected to positive associations from holidays and childhood memories, as families often vacation near bodies of water.
Researchers in the UK have suggested that human beings are naturally drawn to water environments "because they have supported human settlement," such as coasts and harbors. Still others, such as Jean Kim, assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, along with Nichols, believe that our need to be around water is the manifestation of something far more primal. "Life comes from water and needs water," says Nichols. "We are fundamentally made of water." Kim agrees: "It may be that we're still wired as animals to feel rooted or grounded when we see nature."
Of course, no one is suggesting that a walk in the park is a substitute for therapy—in all its forms—or psychiatric medication. Still, many psychotherapists "prescribe" water as therapy. "I frequently take patients out of the office and into Central Park for a walk around the reservoir," says Paul Hokemeyer, an addiction specialist and family therapist in Manhattan. "I'm constantly recommending my clients reconnect with and find comfort in nature, especially [those] who suffer from addictive disorders. These patients have hyperactive central nervous systems and are hyper-stimulated by the sights, sounds, and smells of the world around them. Being in nature enables them to become intentional with their lives, rather than reactive."
All of this is to say that "urban blue" as a health-promoting factor still needs greater examination. BlueHealth, a Pan-European, multi-disciplinary research consortium focused on understanding how "water-based environments in towns and cities can affect health and wellbeing," is currently attempting to quantify the positive effects of "blue infrastructure [natural and man-made aquatic environments] on health promotion and disease prevention" using a series of surveys, reviews, and experiments that they plan to conduct through 2019.
In the meantime, I'll continue wandering along the shorelines and lakefronts. As Nichols puts it, "Urban blue spaces are places to gather, think, relax, create, and unplug. Water gives us a sense of freedom and privacy, even in a big city."