As the sea affects the brain

-Jennifer Delgado

Have you ever felt an incredible peace while walking along the sea, or maybe you felt more energetic and your mood was improved? The truth is that most people experience a feeling of calm, relaxation and well-being, when near the water. Why? Neuroscientists believe that the explanation lies in our brain.

The sea has a tremendous effect on our mind

In essence, the relaxing effect of the sea is due to the fact that represents a kind of “vacation” for our brain compared to the excess of the stimuli to which we submit it every day. In fact, we live in an environment overloaded of stimuli, these constantly bombard us causing an overstimulation that ends up generating a constant state of tension that prevents us to relax.

However, seeing the sea and hearing the sound of the waves allows us to disconnect from this chaotic environment, like we were creating a bubble around us. In fact, the movement of the sea and its immensity have an almost hypnotic effect, which generates a feeling of tranquility and well-being that allows us to regenerate ourselves.

– It induces a meditative state

The sound of the ocean waves induces a meditative state and stimulates an attitude of mindfulness. In fact, it is no coincidence that this sound is often used in relaxation sessions since it has been shown to cause changes in brain waves. In particular, the sound of the sea waves promotes the alpha waves, which have been linked to a state of attention without effort. These waves appear when we are relaxed and calm, so focused that the whole environment around us disappears, even time. Interestingly, these waves also promote a state of mental clarity and stimulate creative thinking.

– Stimulates creativity

When we are close to the sea, our brain changes its operational mode switching from “occupied” to “relaxed”. The interesting thing is that in this way it is activated the default neural network, which is exactly what has been connected to intuition and the appearance of the most original and creative ideas. What happens is that the sea allows us to forget our worries making sure that the prefrontal area of the brain transfers the control, letting creativity flow freely. In this state we are more open to new experiences and less critical.

– Generates a powerful state of awe and wonder

There’s nothing like watching the immensity of the sea to perceive a mixed feeling of awe and wonder in front of the immensity. In this regard, the psychologists of the universities of Stanford and Minnesota have found that this experience can foster a deep sense of well-being. This type of “expansionary” experiences force us to change the mindset through which we process what we are experiencing, so to produce a dramatic change in our way of thinking that also influences the decision-making process, making us think more about the others and be more generous. It was also shown that these experiences alter our perception of time, as if we were literally immersed in a big bubble.

– It improves cognitive performance

The environment we live in is full of ions, both negative and positive. It was discovered that the positive ions such as those that emit most of the electronic devices, drain our energy. Conversely, negative ions, which are present in large quantities in the sea, are generating a state of activation. In fact, a study conducted at Mount Carmel College in Bangalore revealed that negative ions have a positive effect on our cognitive performance. The researchers involved the participants into various tests of memory, attention and decision-making process and found that their performance were reduced when the air was full of positive ions and increased when there were more negative ions. Another study conducted at the University of California revealed that negative ions also stimulate the production of serotonin in the brain, a substance that helps us to relax while at the same time we feel full of energy.

5 Simple Ways to Relax and Recharge

Many of us have a hard time relaxing. Maybe just the thought of taking a break actually stresses you. And that’s understandable. Because, as “a society we value being busy, so it can almost feel that we are doing something wrong by relaxing,” said Agnes Wainman, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and self-proclaimed self-care activist in London, Ontario.

Christine Selby’s clients regularly tell her that relaxing is a waste of time because it means they’re not being productive. That’s when she asks them why they’d bother relaxing at all. They usually mention that relaxing feels good or helps them to wind down and destress. “My next question,” she added, “‘Is that not doing something?’”

Relaxing, in reality, is productive. According to Wainman, “Relaxing allows us to actually be more productive when we need to be, because we aren’t pushing ourselves to the brink of mental fatigue.”

“[R]elaxation has been shown time and time again to help reduce the effects of stress by slowing down many functions of the body that can break down after prolonged use,” Selby said. Relaxation can improve our mental health, including depression and anxiety.

Below, Selby and Wainman shared five simple ways you can relax.

Simply sit

“We are human ‘beings’ not human ‘doings,’” said Wainman, founder of London Psychological Services. She suggested sitting and taking several deep breaths. At first this might feel awkward (probably because it’s unfamiliar). That’s OK. Once you let go and begin breathing deeply, you’ll start relaxing. If it helps, close your eyes. 

Hug someone you trust

“Hugging can be a powerful form of relaxation,” said Selby, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Chilling Out: The Psychology of Relaxation. “Hugging someone you care about and who cares about you as well releases oxytocin, which is a hormone that helps in strengthening the emotional bond we have with others.” Research has found that hugging reduces blood pressure, stress and anxiety — but only when we hug someone we trust.

Also, the type of hug matters — you won’t find the same benefits with a brief or side hug, Selby said. “It really has to be the type where two people are wrapped up in each other’s arms and they stay that way for several seconds.” As you’re hugging, you’ll probably notice yourself breathing more slowly and deeply. Which fosters a greater sense of relaxation. 

Do something repetitive — that doesn’t require much attention

According to Wainman, this might be anything from putting beads on a string to putting rocks in a pile to drawing shapes. “It allows our mind to go on auto-pilot, but gives us something to do if just sitting and being feels too uncomfortable.” Plus, there’s something soothing about repetition, she said. Some of her clients also find crocheting to be rhythmic and calming.

Perform vigorous exercise

Exercise is another great way to relax, which might seem strange since it actually increases our heart rate and blood pressure, said Selby, co-founder of Selby Psychological Services in Bangor, Maine. But “the mechanism that has that energizing effect on the body when we exercise has an opposing counterpart that automatically kicks in when we stop exercising.”

That is, when we exercise, our fight or flight response is activated. When we stop exercising, that counterpart automatically slows everything down to a state of rest, she said.

When someone is stressed, a common suggestion is to run around the block or perform vigorous sit-ups or push-ups, she said. If you’re able to engage in vigorous exercise, which activities do you enjoy? (After all, enjoyment also is important.)

Pet your pet

This is one of Selby’s favorite relaxation tips to recommend to pet owners. She suggests patients sit or lay next to their pets and pet them (as opposed to playing with them). “The rhythmic act of petting, the warmth of their bodies and their breathing can all have a soothing, calming effect.” Even people who watch fish swimming in a tank seem to feel more relaxed — and experience a reduction in blood pressure.

Each of us deserves to take a break from all the doing and going to simply pause. Try the activities mentioned above — or use them as a starting point to brainstorm other activities you’d like to try.

If you’re having trouble relaxing, consider seeking professional support. According to Selby, some people experience “relaxation-induced anxiety.” That is, “while they are trying to relax, they will feel anxiety about not knowing how it is going to go, if they will ever feel relaxed, and what they are going to think about while relaxed.”

Either way, remember that relaxation is powerful. It’s important to prioritize it in your life — whether you’re scheduling it yourself or working with someone.

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Stress Reduction using Mind/Body Exercise

Please feel free to adapt the following exercise in any way that feels comfortable for you.

Find a quiet place where you wont be disturbed and make yourself comfortable. Sitting is better than lying down so you dont get too comfortable and fall asleep. Place your hands gently on your lap, uncross your legs.

Starting at the top of your head and proceeding down to your toes,notice how each part of your body is feeling..noticing if there is any stress or tension or physical discomfort. Do this slowly as you are increasing your attention and awareness through this process. If you notice a part of your body that is experiencing tension, gently say to that part of your body the word “relax” or “”release” or a similar word that works for you. In addition to using the word, you can also take a deep breath and breathe into the tension you experience. Again, do this slowly so that you can really experience the release. As you do this exercise, it’s important to notice how you are breathing. Consciously breathing from your diaphragm instead of your chest area will deepen the experience of relaxation.

Another variation of this exercise is to go through a process that involves purposely tensing and relaxing each muscle group from your head to your feet. So starting with your facial muscles for example…gently squeeze your eye and mouth like you’re making an ugly face..and then relax . Do it 3 times and move on to your shoulders..lift your shoulders to your ears and then drop…3 times (PLEASE DON’T DO THIS IF YOU HAVE PAIN ANYWHERE..you don’t want to make anything worse.)

And as you move down your body, tense and release each muscle group..go slowly and dont forget to breathe.

-Scott Christnelly, LCSW-R

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation starts with finding a comfortable position – in a chair, laying down, or even standing if you like. Begin by focusing on your breathing for a few breaths – listen and feel your breaths go in and out, and try to extend your breaths so that they take about 4 seconds in, and 4 seconds out. You can count while you do this to help you. Then either start at your feet or your head by tightening a muscle group and hold it while you breathe in 4 seconds, then release that muscle group on the breath out for 4 seconds. For example, tighten your forehead for 4 seconds, then release for 4, then tighten your neck muscles and release for 4 seconds, moving down your body progressively until you get to your feet. Then you can come back up through the muscle groups and end with your head. If you find that 4 second cycles don’t work, feel free to move faster or slower, whatever pace gives you the best relaxation response.

-Submitted by Alexa Thompson, LPC