How Being In and Around Water Affects Your Brain

The mind-body benefits of H2O are real and reviving.

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During the 10 summers I lived in New York City, I would often get to work hours before my coworkers so I could race out early and catch the 5:06 P.M. train to my hometown. Why? Because an hour later I'd be floating on the Long Island Sound on my parents' boat. That packed train ride? Forgotten. The screeching of tires and horns and coworkers? Silenced. My deadline? Tomorrow's problem.

The primal pull of water isn't just a me thing; it's an everyone thing. There's an evolutionary reason we're attracted to vast salty oceans, lakes, rivers, swimming pools, burbling fountains in the park, even a humble tubful. "When our earliest ancestors looked for places to settle, they naturally sought out water sources necessary to survive," says Wallace J. Nichols, PhD, a marine biologist and researcher at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. "It became genetically advantageous for humans to be attracted to water and find it." As the old saying goes, Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.

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Survival aside, why is water such a shortcut to happiness? "It triggers a physiological reset, relaxing the nervous system and allowing you to quiet the noise and worry that life typically brings," says Justin Feinstein, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, OK. In his book Blue Mind, Nichols describes "a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment."

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Mmm, sounds nice. And there's more where that came from: Whether we're on, in, near, or under water, the benefits to our health and wellness run deep, and the ripple effect extends to all areas of our life.

Water Washes Away Stress

You know how just dangling your feet in a pool can be instantly refreshing? That's your blue mind in action. When Feinstein and a team of researchers took brain scans of people before and after they floated in warm pools, "we saw drops in heart and respiratory rates, and a decrease in brain waves, just from being in the water," he says. But it's about more than simply relaxing in a comfortable environment: "There's something very specific about the water that lets you disconnect from reality."

Sometimes spotting that pretty blue horizon is all it takes. "Being around water allows you to become less ruminative and anxious, and it seems to happen reflexively," says Feinstein. "The threat-detection centers of our brains — the part that kicks off the fight-or-flight response — shut down a little."

Survival theory may explain water's power: We're hardwired to scan our environment for danger, and when you're on, say, a beach, you often have an open vista and can see what's coming. (In urban or wooded areas, on the other hand, we never know what could jump out, so our brains remain on alert.)

As for those silly-seeming tabletop fountains you flip past in catalogs? They could be a smart buy for a pressure-filled office or a bedroom that sees more sheep than sleep. In one study, patients with anxiety tied to cancer and chronic pain were shown a nature video that included various water sounds. They experienced a 20 to 30 percent reduction in stress hormones such as cortisol.

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It Makes You More Creative

If you've ever solved something big in the shower or busted through a mental block after taking a walk on the beach, science says it's no coincidence. "When the brain stays focused for too long, it's like leaving a light on — eventually you'll burn out the bulb," says M.A. Greenstein, PhD, an expert in applied neuroscience. "That's why you sometimes get stuck. But water may help you turn off that switch so your brain can go into 'drift mode'" — which is key to creativity. Your brain uses less energy when drifting, but it's working smarter, not harder. And in that do-less mind state, the "aha" you've been waiting for surfaces.

Water Gives You Lasting Energy

When choosing your next getaway, consider a trip that requires a tankini. In a two-year study of nearly 3,000 people, psychologists looked at how urban parks, the countryside, and the coast affect people's psyches. The verdict? The seaside sparked the most positive feelings of enjoyment, calm, and refreshment — regardless of how far people had traveled to be near the water. Meaning you can get the boost whether you hit the closest beach town or take a bucket-list trip to a remote island.

It's Nature's Healer

If Nichols could prescribe remedies to the masses, he says this would be his Rx: "Take two waves, a beach walk, and some flowing river and call me in the morning." The mind-body effects of water are so powerful that therapy programs for veterans around the country use floating, swimming, and even surfing as ways to help them cope with trauma such as PTSD. "Most of the formative months of our brain development occurred in utero," says Feinstein. "Even if we don't have any conscious memories of that time, one of the reasons water resonates with all of us is that it immediately creates that essence of being in a womblike environment of safety — and that's essential for healing."

So maybe it all comes down to the fact that water was our first personal oasis, worth tapping into whenever and wherever we can. Adult swim, anyone?

3 Ways to Get Your Water Fix

No more vacation days? You can still give your brain a refresh.

Change Your Screen Saver to Something Beachy: A study from Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden showed that just having a picture of a water scene on the wall reduced anxiety in patients. "Water is such a powerful force that even looking at images of it has been found to signal our brain to release dopamine, the feel-good chemical," says Nichols.

Take a Time-Out in the Shower: Napping may seem like a good way to reboot, but getting wet could work faster. "People will say, 'Just give me 10 minutes — I need to jump in the shower, then I can think again,'" Feinstein observes. Here's why: When that water hits you, "you reconnect with signals coming from within your body," he says. "The brain isn't dealing with the tactile sensory input from the outside world, so you're able to feel things like your heartbeat and your breath."

Get a White-Noise Machine: Research has shown that listening to water sounds — waves, waterfalls, the pitter-patter of rain — reduces worry and anxiety. It's no wonder noise machines, designed to help you tune out the world, come with so many H2O options. "They're an effective way to block out other distractions," because they make it easy to forget we're listening to anything at all, says Stéphane Pigeon, Ph.D, a sound engineer. "Our brain is able to accept water sounds without having to work at processing what we're hearing."

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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