The calming effects of green spaces are well known. From filling our houses with verdant pot plants to forest bathing, we’re switched on to just how good it feels to be surrounded by all things green.
But psychologist Laura Lee says there are just as many benefits from immersing ourselves in natural water-based environments, known as blue spaces. Lee says whenever she’s near the ocean, she feels a significant shift in body and mind. “I notice this drop in my shoulders, this immediate relaxation and this healing quality that comes with being in or around the water.”
Lee is such a firm believer in the therapeutic effects of blue spaces on mental health that she named her newly established psychology practice Blue Space Psychology.
Fiona, a 40-year-old single mother and small-business owner, also speaks of the perks of blue spaces. She has always loved going to the beach and nowadays feels an almost primal urge to head there.
Once she’s near the water, Fiona notices an instant shift in how she’s feeling. It also helps put her problems in perspective. “It reiterates to me that I’m just a speck in this big, wide, monstrous thing we call the world.”
Being in a blue space doesn’t just feel therapeutic, it’s also good for us physically, says Lee. Because large bodies of water tend to also have less air pollution around them, she says there’s a “tangible physical environmental benefit”. Plus, she adds, people who spend more time near bodies of water are often more active, which can do wonders for both physical and mental health.
A 2020 study, published in the journal Environmental Research, found that being near blue spaces can also boost our mood. For this research, participants were asked to walk for 20 minutes in either a blue or urban space, or to spend that time resting at a control site. After three weeks, the researchers found “significantly improved wellbeing and mood responses” in those who walked near a blue space.
You might assume that walking in a forest would reap similar benefits. But Lee says blue spaces have an added edge over green ones because of the nature of water itself. “Water seems to have more of a psychologically restorative impact than green spaces,” says Lee, explaining that the rhythm and movement of water is “almost meditative”, which can induce an overwhelming sense of calm. For Fiona, that calmness then translates to improved productivity, creativity and clarity of thought for the rest of the day.