“Blue Mind Theory” Is the Free Wellness Hack You Need to Try This Summer

Imagine sitting at the beach, your feet nestled in the sand, listening to the ocean’s ebb and flow of waves. Being near water is uniquely peaceful; it makes me feel so at ease, grounded, and present. And, it turns out, there’s a reason for that. That calming state you feel when you’re in or near water—coined the “blue mind theory”—is TikTok’s latest wellness obsession just in time for summer. There is growing evidence that exposure and proximity to “blue spaces” (AKA bodies of water) are linked to positive mental and physical health. It’s completely free, easy, and packs a ton of benefits, making it our favorite wellness hack of the summer. So, let’s dive (or dip our toes) into what the “blue mind theory” is, how it works, and how you can embrace a blue mind no matter where you are. 

What is the “Blue Mind Theory?”

The blue mind theory was developed by marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, PhD, author of Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. According to Nichols, blue mind refers to the “mildly meditative state people fall into when they are near, in, on or under water,” whether it’s floating in a pool, staring at the ocean, sitting on a boat on the lake, or walking alongside a river. It’s associated with feelings of peace, awe, connection, and satisfaction with life. 

The theory explores how water in all forms affects our well-being, which makes sense given our bodies are around 60 percent water, and we need it to sustain life. More specifically, the “blue mind theory” focuses on how being in, near, on, or under water restores and enhances our mental and physical health through the unique sensory experience, range of positive emotions, and reconnection with nature it promotes. 

It’s not hard to see how much we already depend on water for relaxation. We cue our sound machines to play sounds of waves crashing or rain falling to put us to sleep, have water features in our homes to fill the still air, and soak in baths to relax and soothe our aching bodies and minds. But the blue mind theory takes it to the next level, asserting that being near or in water is essential to our physical and emotional health and an antidote to the anxiety and overstimulation that defines hustle culture

How does the “Blue Mind Theory” work, and what are the benefits?

Instinctually, the theory feels right on the mark. I always feel better sitting by a lake or jumping over waves in the ocean, and so do most people I know. But why? Nichols countered the idea of the blue mind with the “red mind,” which is our day-to-day mode of functioning. It’s the mindset we are in when we’re getting our work done and tapping into social media or the news. It’s guided by productivity, ruled by tension and tech, and places us into “fight-or-flight” mode. And although it’s an important mindset to accomplish things, when it’s our dominant state, it leads to burnout. Blue mind, on the other hand, is necessary because it promotes “rest-and-digest,” allowing us to take a much-needed break from the red mind state and helping us become more creative, compassionate, and connected. 

According to Nichols, when you even look at water, your nervous system knows to relax. The feeling of peace only intensifies with each sense you engage: seeing the reflection of the sun on the crystal blue water as you lay poolside, smelling the salty sea air, listening to the methodic crashing of waves, feeling the cool water across every inch of your body when you jump in. He also said that in the presence of water, stress and cortisol levels drop, leading our bodies to a state of healing and repairing. These ideas correspond to findings from research about the effect of natural environments on our health and well-being, namely that viewing natural landscapes helps us relax. What’s more, exposure to nature reduces biophysical markers of stress like cortisol, helping reduce anxiety and depression symptoms by increasing serotonin (the hormone responsible for boosting mood) production in the brain.

As a wellness nerd, I can’t help but think about how the growing field of research on awe is connected to the Blue Mind Theory. That research tells us that when we experience awe (think: looking up at the night sky, standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or viewing the sunset over the open ocean), we feel our sense of self diminish while feeling our sense of connection to the rest of the world expand. The result? More creativity and compassion, less materialism, and a boosted mood—similar to what Nichols mentioned when he talked about blue mind. Plus, the more time we spend in nature, the more connected we feel to it. And people who feel more connected to nature are happier. It’s not just bodies of water that are relaxing for our minds and refreshing to our bodies; it’s all of nature. In other words, taking in any part of Mother Nature can help set your mind and body in vacay mode. Excuse me while I tap into a blue mind by romanticizing the Hudson. 

How to embrace a blue mind 

Nichols said that the blue mind has to be practiced, and you can do it by engaging with any form of water: the ocean, a park fountain, a full bathtub, and even a poem or painting of water. Bottom line: All types of water count. You don’t have to live in a house on the beach with an Instagram-worthy view of the Pacific or vacation on the Maldives or Bora Bora to embrace a blue mind. You can harness your blue mind whenever and wherever you are. If you’re not near any body of water, simply listening to the sounds of water (a running creek, a cascading waterfall, or rainfall) can mimic similar positive effects. As for how long you need to be in a blue space environment to reap the benefits, one 2020 study found that simply walking where water is visible for 20 minutes a day immediately increased mood. However, Nichols said you can put the blue mind into practice in the short time you wash the dishes by using mindfulness to tune into the sensory experience and remember how precious water is. 

Once you have your water source nailed down, tap into the blue mind state by:

  • ditching your device
  • focusing on the sensory experience (what do you see, feel, smell, and hear)
  • being mindful of where your water has come from and how it’s connected to the rest of nature and the world
  • enjoying the present moment

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