Magazine Post: Ocean Therapy

Ocean Therapy

Healing waters soothe the soul no matter the trauma

By Louisa Sax

Where do you go when you need time to reset, relax, de-stress, make decisions or get creative? I go to the ocean. A walk on the beach, snorkel or a day spent fishing works wonders for my ability to think lucidly. I am guessing that if you are reading this particular magazine, we might be similar. 

The positive effects of “green space” on a person’s wellbeing has been widely researched with the evidence being utilized in town planning, real estate and alternative therapy among other industries. “Blue space” is now included in that discussion as the two are perceived to have commonalities. 

photos by yucelozel / iStock / Getty Images Plus

However, the effects of exposure to “blue space” has since become the topic of scientific inquiry, and BlueHealth, an organization funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program, was established in 2016 to undertake much of the research. Many people have stories and experiences to share regarding their relationship with the ocean and how it makes them feel. Wallace J. Nichols, author of the fascinating book Blue Mind, reported that when qualitative data was collected on the topic, people were asked why they spend time near the water. The most common responses were “it makes me happy,” “it feels good” and “I’m not quite sure.”

Nichols explored the depths of psychological research to uncover why and how water is such a powerful motivator and healer. His supported hypothesis is that “being in, on, under or around water makes you happier, more connected and better at what you do”.

But what about more serious mental health conditions? If the ocean is such a powerful mood changer and creator of positive energy, can it also benefit those with diagnosed mental health issues, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety or addiction? The answer is yes, and there is now considerable scientific evidence to suggest that proximity to “blue space” can reduce the symptoms of “common mental health disorders.” 

I read Blue Mind twice in preparation for this article, meticulously highlighting on almost every page. But anything that I write couldn’t possibly do the book justice, so my best advice would be to read it yourself. Seriously. 

Instead, I will highlight some organizations that are seizing the power of this incredible healer to change the lives of those they help.

Chasten Whitfield teaching a young boy how to fish

Chastenation

Chasten Whitfield is a young earth shaker with an inspirational story. Chasten started fishing competitively at age 14 and instinctively donated the money she won to children’s charities. At the time, Chasten volunteered for a fishing camp, where she met somebody who inspired her to make a difference — Easton, a young boy with spina bifida. Chasten helped Easton catch a fish from a pier, and the joy that it brought him pushed her to take a step further. She borrowed a friend’s boat that would fit his wheelchair so he could feel the freedom of fishing that she enjoys. She knew that day that this is what she wanted to do for the rest of her life; shortly after, Chasten partnered with Bluefin Boats to build a specially adapted boat — and Chastenation was born. 

Chasten says that the goal of Chastenation, which is a “nation” of partners that help her in her mission, is to build self-esteem in children with disabilities and to give them a day where they only need to think about fighting fish.

Chasten strongly believes that being on or near the ocean reduces stress and anxiety, increases a sense of well-being and happiness, lowers your heart and breathing rate, and “just makes you feel good.” It has been her go-to for relief since she was young. She says that she doesn’t have to be fishing, and just being on the water is incredibly healing: “While my mom was going through breast cancer, on her bad days, she would do the same and go out on the water just to get out. She said it made her feel so much better.”

When it comes to the children that she helps, Chasten says that she hopes for equality and for the world to treat them the way that the fish do — with no discrimination. 

To learn more about Chastenation, visit ChastenWhitfield.com.

Keep Calm and Paddle On

Keep Calm and Paddle On (KCPO) was established in Canada in 2012 by Chad Guenter with this exact motto in mind. At first, Chad was on a mission for personal happiness, but his altruistic nature inevitably made the mission much bigger than himself. KCPO raises money for mental health charities through sponsored long-distance paddles that aim to raise awareness and end the stigma associated with mental health issues. In the first year, the impact was so great that the charity movement was extended to the Cayman Islands by Chad’s dear friend, Jasmin “Yaz” Muratijic. 

Since 2012, more and more people have joined Chad and Yaz across lakes and oceans and down rivers, anywhere that a body of water has given them the energy that they needed to talk openly about their personal struggles. Yaz believes that “water in general is a healer. There’s nothing else you can think about other than the task in front of you.” When I asked him what about water makes it healing, Yaz responded, “Just the sheer size of it. It demands respect and focus. It’s a living organism, and it changes from day to day — the currents, winds, swells. You can learn about it every day and never fully understand. It’s a form of meditation, and it doesn’t matter if you spend one or 10 hours paddling, the natural high is unmistaken and very addictive — in its greatest form. It’s just you and the elements.” 

KCPO wants people who may be suffering in silence to come out to paddle and talk about it, that depression is not a weakness, and that collectively we are stronger and can beat it together.

To join a paddle or support KCPO, visit kcpo.ky (Cayman Islands) or kcpo.ca (Canada).

FleaHab

FleaHab is a Sober Living Environment directed by professional big wave surfer and recovering addict, Darryl ‘Flea’ Verostko. Neurobiology says that addiction is a reward prioritization issue where the user becomes dependent on the dopamine reward derived from one source only — the drug of choice — and excludes other more natural possibilities. 

Surfing and other activities in nature have the potential to change brain chemistry by providing alternative rewards to satisfy the brain’s desire for a neurochemical “rush.” Surfing replaces the high of drugs with the natural dopamine “high” produced by the intensity and novelty of riding the waves. It also helps the addict cope with any associated depression or anxiety by exposing them to other healing properties that the ocean provides — it gives us energy and demands focus and respect. Also, the ocean is constantly changing yet essentially staying the same, which entertains and inspires the mind. 

FleaHab offers a different approach to sober living by focusing on a holistic mind, body and spirit interacting with positive intention while making surfing a daily priority. 

Flea says that the ocean is the most important part of the residents’ recovery, in conjunction with following a 12-step program, and that keeping the water and beaches clean is everything. 

To learn more about FleaHab, visit FleaHab.org.

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