Water, in all of its forms, is hugely therapeutic—and you can reap the mind-body benefits in the winter too.
You probably have some fond memories of being around water: the beach you grew up going to, the seas you snorkeled in on your honeymoon, the lake behind your grandmother's house.
There's a reason these memories make you feel calm: Research shows that aquatic scenes can help you bust stress and find joy. In fact, people who live along coastlines tend to be happier and healthier than people who don't, according to the European Centre for Environment & Human Health.
"Water makes you happier, healthier, more connected to other people, and better at what you do," says Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D., the author of Blue Mind.
This makes sense. Humans have used water for its healing properties for years. Our own bodies are made up of 60 percent water. "When NASA searches the universe for life, their simple mantra is 'follow the water,'" says Nichols. "While you can live without love, go far without shelter, survive a month without food, you won't make it through the week without water."
Your Brain On the Ocean
The best way to think about what happens to your mind when you're near water is to think about what you're leaving behind, says Nichols. Say you're walking down a busy city street talking on the phone (cars, motorcycles, horns, sirens, and all).
"You're trying to listen to the conversation, but there's other activity going on. Your brain needs to filter that out," he says. "The physical stimulation of everyday life is enormous. You're always processing, filtering, and calculating every sound and movement around you."
Your brain does all of this at lightning speeds, which uses a lot of energy, making you feel tired. Plus, even when you aim to relax—at the gym (where maybe you stare at a TV screen) or at a busy sports game (where you're surrounded by noise)—you're probably still receiving a lot of stimulation. "Distractions can be physically and mentally stressful."
Now picture stepping away from all of that and being by the ocean. "Things are simpler and visually cleaner," says Nichols. "Going to the water goes beyond distraction. It gives your brain a rest in a way that the gym doesn't." Of course, he adds that many things can soothe your frazzled mind: music, art, exercise, friends, pets, nature. "Water is just one of the best because it combines elements of all the others."
The Benefits of Water
Studies suggest that simply being around water can increase levels of "feel-good" brain chemicals (like dopamine) and sink levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, says Nichols. Some research also suggests that "ocean therapy" and time spent surfing can play a role in decreasing symptoms of PTSD in veterans.
The benefits are magnified if you enjoy the sea with someone close to you. "We find that people's relationships deepen—they connect more," Nichols says. Being with someone in or around the water, he says, can increase levels of oxytocin, a chemical that plays a role in trust-building. This helps you write a new script about your relationships. "If your relationship is all about being in stressful, indoor situations, floating in the ocean can really make your relationship better."
In the presence of water, Nichols says your brain does other things, too, like "mind wandering," which is key for creativity. "You start working at a different level on the puzzles of your life," he says. That means insights, "aha" moments (shower epiphanies, anyone?), and innovation, which don't always come to you when you're stressed.
Recreate the Beach
Stuck in a land-locked city, or facing a dark, cold winter? (We feel ya.) There's still hope. "Water in all forms can help you slow down, disconnect from technology, and shift your thoughts," says Nichols. "In the city or in the winter, float spas, tubs and showers, fountains and water sculptures, as well as water-related art can help you access the same benefits." Not only are these experiences therapeutic (they send your mind and body into a healing mode), Nichols says they can also activate positive memories of previous experiences with water, bringing you back to your happy place.
His advice: "End every day with a quiet, hot bath as part of your winter wellness routine."
Fiiiiiiiine, if we must.