If you are like most boaters, the happiest day of boating is the post spring commissioning splash and the saddest day is late-fall haul out. Between those two events is the true bliss of on-the-water adventures. As an arthritis sufferer, I always feel better on the boat, and I’ve been known to feel better in the winter just checking on the boat while it’s on the hard. I feel as if it is magic, as if I were one with the boat and it influenced my mind. Sounds crazy, but there is a scientific basis for the change in my attitude and even pain level when I’m on the boat.
According to research conducted by many scientists and published in his groundbreaking book “Blue Mind,” Dr. Wallace J. Nichols explains the brain mapping changes experienced by individuals when water is part of their lives. Blue Mind is defined as, “A mildly meditative state characterized by peace, unity, and sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.” I am certain most boaters reading that quote know exactly how that feels, but did you know that the therapeutic use of water can alter the human mind even off the boat?
Our minds function based on different areas of the brain which control differing functions of our body and our emotions. For instance, the amygdala is an area of the brain that captures and imprints our emotions. It is designed to help with processing of fear, and as such drives our “fight” or “flight” survival mechanism. Most everyone has experienced this mechanism at one time or another in their lives. Remember being frightened by a loud noise behind you? Your heart rate increases. You begin to sweat. Your mind makes a quick decision to either confront the noise or run away from it.
In today’s world, for the most part, we do not encounter survival experiences on a daily basis. When we do, that fight or flight mechanism kicks in and pushes us to do extraordinary things in the quest of self-preservation. When we experience one of those traumatic events, the amygdala captures the moments and imprints them on the brain, sort of like a perpetual file cabinet with Google search capability. Our mind can replay those experiences on a moment’s notice any time we are threatened, or when we perceive there is danger. This is essentially what happens to those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The amygdala goes into overdrive producing the sensation of a survival event as if it is in the present, even if no danger exists. Research has shown that individuals suffering from PTSD, a complex and often debilitating syndrome, benefit from time on, in, or around water in reprinting the amygdala with calming memories to reduce symptoms.
For those fortunate enough not to have PTSD, most times we are not really in danger but instead just experiencing stress. Road rage is an example of the emotional impact of past experiences taking control of present-day traffic events. Before we know it, we are angry, impulsive, and outright out of control over seemingly little stuff in life. There is a name for this: “Red Brain.” In our busy lives, Red Brain can be the dominant behavior pushed out from our amygdala. Deadlines, work insecurities, family responsibilities, or personal priorities denied can all lead to Red Brain. Living in our Red Brains leads the amygdala to imprint anxiety in our emotional cortex and over time eliminates or greatly reduces our ability to self soothe and relax.
In the past, I was the captain of a water taxi. I would pick people up and transport them to a nice restaurant for dinner or take them for a short cruise on the river. I could observe the stress of the day melting away as we cruised along the waterway to our destination. Upon arrival, I would ask if they felt more peaceful since getting aboard. Inevitably, they would state they felt much more relaxed and at peace. When I explained they left their Red Brains onshore and were in their Blue Brains, I always got a few chuckles. I reminded those individuals they could tap into the peace and serenity they felt onboard at any time if they would get in touch with water and allow their Blue Brain to soar. I always got smiles as they were disembarking. Those who were repeat passengers often told me they used their Blue Brains whenever they felt stressed and were amazed at how it worked.
My comments, not random but backed by many scientific research studies, were my small contribution to the knowledge on the impact of water on the human brain. There are many water-based sailing and cruising programs available to induce healing with water and Blue Mind therapies. Soldiers returning from war experiencing PTSD, cancer survivors experiencing anxiety or depression, children and adults who have disabilities or who have experienced abuse or neglect have all benefited by being on, near, or under the water and tapping into their Blue Minds.
So how does the average boater keep that serenity when snow is falling or the temperature is freezing, and the boat is on the hard shrink wrapped? It is not really difficult, just try some of these techniques:
Close your eyes, take five deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth slowly, and then visualize the best day ever on the water. Focus on the water itself, the ripples of the water slapping the boat, the feel of wakes under the bow, the look of current moving past the hull, or the sheen on the water at sunrise or sunset. Spend five full minutes in this moment, take five more deep breaths, open your eyes, and experience your Blue Brain.
Find a water source, maybe a fountain in a city park, a small stream in your community, the shower at your home, or the water running off your newly washed hands. Tap into your Blue Brain experience on the boat and let the water flow, taking your stress or anxiety to a lower level.
Fill a clear water bottle half full of water and a few marbles. Add a couple of drops of blue food coloring if you like. Focus on the movement of the marbles through the water as you gently tilt the bottle toward each end. Clear your mind of any thoughts other than the feel of the bottle as it rolls back and forth in your hand and the movement of the water over the marbles. Remember the feel of the water under the hull as you cruise on the water; capture your Blue Mind.
Place a small waterfall fountain in your workspace and spend a few minutes focusing on the flow of the water through the fountain. Remember the sun setting or rising over the water or the sway of the boat as you step aboard. Tap into the memories imprinted on your amygdala.
There is a reason we are boaters. We crave the serenity of the water. We live in our Blue Brains in good weather and are better suited to modulate anxiety, pain, and stress while on the boat. There is no substitute for actual exposure to water that meets this need so why fight the medicine? Embrace your Blue Brain, modulate the effects of your Red Brain, and practice the cruisers life year round. Who knows, you might just live better and longer?
About the Author: After a 45-year career in nursing, Lynda Kopishke decided to follow her lifelong dream of being a boat captain. In 2018, she obtained a USCG 50-Ton Merchant Marine license. As a captain, Lynda brings her knowledge of Blue Mind Therapies to trauma survivors who benefit from time on the water finding new serenity, and for people who just want to have fun. She is the captain of Sea Horse and conducts private charters for fun and healing. You can reach Captain Lynda at l[email protected] or (302) 722-5095.