The concept of “ocean therapy” has been popular,
both in history and now with growing interest.
Now, preliminary research is showing that
people with significant stress
recover and recharge
in or near the sea.
How does the ocean restore and recharge us? Studies show that the ocean can have beautiful benefits for you. Boost your emotional intelligence. Rinse away physical or mental stress. Attain a deep deep deep night’s sleep. Grow thicker hair. Soothe skin problems. Balance your brain rhythms. These jewels of restoration are yours and more, when you treat your self to a sea vacation.
Note: The following does replace advice from a medical professional, but rather speaks to ways to optimize wellness.
“Emotional intelligence” has become a key phrase of our times. No matter your achievements, studies have shown that without emotional intelligence, you will only go so far. Co-creating happiness in the workplace and finding adaptive responses to the stress in the modern day lifestyle are key factors to align yourself to success.
If you have a highly demanding job, there is a chance it takes a toll on you, putting at risk for bun. Having to refocus your attention constantly in response to many questions and requirements for your opinion, can lead to decision-making fatigue. In many high powered workplaces, there can be high emotions expressed occasionally, which raises stress levels, cortisol levels, and reduces energy. With long hours, or shift work, sleep can become disrupted, especially if staring at a computer screen for a significant portion of time in the evenings. Some writers, like Lee Lipsenthal, speak to a kind of “trauma complex type” that occurs as the person gets overly fatigued with subtler, more prolonged exposure to significant stress. This PTSD-complex type leads to intrusive thoughts about work that happen with uncomfortable feelings (1). So how do busy professionals learn the mind clarity and emotional even-keel to weather these possibilities?
Surfing can increase emotional intelligence. Saltwater Sessions director Lena Dickens, PhD, likens surfing on the board to keeping your center midst the many-layered demands of life. To keep your focus when surfing, and not be overwhelmed by changing waves or fear, teaches perseverance, determination, and enhances emotional adaptability. French doctors prescribe surfing to patients to treat various illnesses, from depression to heart disease. Carly Rogers evolved her own experience of ocean renewal into therapeutic sessions for those with a history of trauma, including veterans. Programs offered by Wounded Warriors Ocean Therapy and Warrior Surf Foundation see soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder find renewed enjoyment of life, deep sleep, and decreased flashbacks and nightmares when surfing regularly. As such, surfing can enhance emotional intelligence and reduce anxiety, even treating PTSD (2,3,4,5).
The Physics of Ocean Water
Negative ions are molecules in the air that carry an extra negative charge. As our bodies are electromagnetic, theoretically, the negative ions and salt can recharge and rebalance us. Modern day to day life often has too many positive ions that unbalance and fatigue us - positive ions are generated by pollution, air conditioning, and electronic devices. Crashing waves and waterfalls create an abundance of negative ions, improving energy, mood, increasing alpha brain rhythms and oxygen absorption (6,7). Boosting our antioxidant defence system, lowering blood lactate levels, and improving aerobic metabolism, the enhanced blood flow generated by negative ions detoxes our bodies (8). Lactate is a molecule in the body that is associated with inflammation, and leads to aching muscles and stiffness after intense exercise. So surfing has a built in recovery effect. Less physical and emotional stress and no need for pain medication was observed in negative ion air environments in a hospital study on minor skin surgery patients in an article published by the Canadian Journal of Anaesthesia (8).
Negative air ionization may be associated with lower depression scores; although some trials show no difference compared to placebo (9,10,11,12). People prone to panic attacks are much less likely to experience panic after a rainfall, when negative ion count is high (8).
Salt. Sea salt water has many benefits: magnesium, potassium, and bromides soothe muscle aches; sea salt is a mild disinfectant and can reduce skin conditions; sea salt water massaged to the scalp can improve hair growth; sea salt water promotes moisture retention in skin so may reduce wrinkles and aging of the skin; circulation improves; lung health improves (13).
The ocean is blue. Blue is a wavelength of light that is found, in experiments, to be calming, relaxing, energizing. Blue enhances connectivity between emotions and other areas of the brain. Blue balances. In Japan, studies show that blue decreases anxiety and even decreases thoughts of life not being worth living. Blue has been found to increase adaptability to emotions (14).
The movement of water has both novelty and repetition. Satisfying our need for adventure and security, the newness and constant waves fulfill two diverse aspects of our psyches. Flotation enhances calm, clears the mind, and decreases stress and is now a serious focus of research in Sweden. Also, when you immerse in water, you balance your catecholamines, which are chemicals in your brain that become imbalanced in stress. Surfing also releases dopamine in your brain, due to the novelty, risk, desire, and effort that it requires - each wave is new (9). Dopamine is depleted in chronic stress, so surfing may therefor be a way to recover from stress (15). Surfing is aerobic, so you also release endorphins which generate feelings and sensations of pleasure and enjoyment, a natural body and mind high. The apres surf calm is the “surfer’s stoke” - relaxed and energized, calm and alert, happy and fulfilled. The surfer’s stoke is the bliss that creates motivation for more surfing.
Water therapy has been used since the late 1800's, becoming a part of standardized care in the early 20th century. In the 1920's and 30's, hospitals featured specific hydrotherapy programs to treat fatigue, exhaustion, anxiety, and depression. Attention to hydrotherapy decreased after this. However, some research on water therapy continues to show powerful enhancement of the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation mode of our bodies and minds. The effects of flotation are likened to the effects of meditation, with strong engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system. Japanese studies show reduced physiological markers of stress and mental fatigue when bathing, associated with improved mental outlook and cognitive performance (8).
Cold Water Immersion
What is the magic that we feel after a cold water surf? Cold water creates significant changes in the body. Heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism increase. Blood flow to the brain decreases. Flow of catecholamines to the edges of the body occurs. Cold water can also decrease pain. Cold exposure can increase the ability of the nervous system to access motor neurons. The active part of the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, is triggered. Noradrenaline and beta-endorphin increase. Cold water may accelerate muscle recovery (16).
Many of us know the thrill and rejuvenation we get when surfing or otherwise engaged in ocean time. Enhancing our mental and physical performance while deeply connecting us to something greater, the ocean can bring us to a place of great peace and clarity. Self care can be deeply enhanced - we can access a deep recharge on all levels.
Dr. Maia Love, MD, FRCPC
(1) Lee Lipsenthal. Finding Balance in a Medical Life. 2007
(2) Need a mood lift? Grab your surfboard. Popular Literature: LiveScience.
(3) Treating PTSD with Surf Therapy. Popular Literature: Psych Central.
(4) Rogers CM, Mallinson T, Peppers D. 2014. High-intensity sports for posttraumatic stress disorder and depression: feasibility study of Ocean Therapy with veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Am J Occupational Ther. 68; 395-404.
(5) Caddick N, Smith B, Phoenix C. 2015. The effects of surfing and the natural environment on the well-being of combat veterans. Qual Health Res. 25(1):76-86.
(6) Negative Ions create Positive Vibes. Popular literature: WebMD
(7) The Power of Negative Ions. Popular literature: Pranaview Australia.
(8) Selhub E & Logan A. "Your Brain on Nature" (book)
(9) Terman M & Terman JS 1995. "Treatment of seasonal affective disorder with a high-output negative ionizer." In J Altern Complem Med. 1(1):87-92. Note: The Termans are based at Columbia University in NYC, New York, USA.
(10) Terman M & Terman JS 2006. "Controlled trial of naturalistic dawn simulation and negative air ionization for seasonal affective disorder." In Am J Psychiatry Dec 163(12):2126-33.
(11) Arehart-Treichel, J. 2007. "Negative Ions may offer unexpected MH Benefit." In Psychiatric News, published by the American Psychiatric Association.
(12) Perez, V. et al. 2013. “Air ions and mood outcomes: a review and meta-analysis.” in BMC Psychiatry
(13) "Sea swimming may add years to your life." Popular literature (with research references): Mail Online.
(14) Nichols, Wallace J. 2015. Blue Mind: The Surprising Science that shows how being near, in, or on water can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do. (book)
(15) Cruikshank, T. 2016. "Meditate your weight." (book)
(16) Moovenham A & Nevithita J 2014. "Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body." N Am J Med Sci 6(5): 199–209.