Photo Stories | Water and Environment

Water in Nature for Mental Health

Nandita Singh and Om Prakash Singh

30 June, 2024


Health is not merely the absence of disease but, as recognized by the World Health Organization, it implies a holistic state of well-being which combines physical, mental and social dimensions. Of these, physical health has long been seen as closely connected to water, where it has been used as a therapeutic agent for curing physically manifested diseases (through a practice called ‘hydrotherapy’). However, what has been largely ignored is the salutogenic (i.e., health promoting) value that water in natural settings holds for us, mainly in relation to mental health. This photo story aims to focus the spotlight on this little known yet vital connection. Mental health itself is a broad concept that concerns emotional, psychological, and social well-being, characterized by a sense of contentment, positivity, resilience, and the capacity to engage in fulfilling relationships and activities. In our highly demanding contemporary daily lives, there is increasing exposure to a variety of unfavorable social, economic and environmental pressures. These negatively impact our mental well-being through problems such as attention fatigue, stress, anxiety and depression. Further, as a result of increasing confinement within built environments, we’re deprived of the positive nurturing effect of nature on our emotional and psychological wellbeing that was originally a part of our biological evolution. The resultant mental distress not only hampers individual peace and well-being but may further lead to tension, aggression, hostility, and delinquent behavior in society. One of the effective ways to address all these challenges at individual and societal levels is to practice ‘Blue Therapy’, which involves spending time in or near ‘blue spaces’, i.e., water bodies in nature such as lakes, rivers, or the ocean. Research carried out primarily by environmental psychologists and neuroscientists shows that blue therapy promotes mental health through multiple pathways that help reduce stress and anxiety, boost creativity, and enhance mental peace. The benefits of blue therapy can be drawn in two ways: first, through passive perceptive experiences on exposure to blue space when we are just viewing from a distance or by being present in or near it; and second, through active participation and involvement with the water through ‘blue physical activities’ such as swimming, surfing, etc. This photo story aims to visually document the different dimensions of the connection between mental health and blue spaces. The dimensions of the linkage presented here have been identified on the basis of an extensive review of the existing research in the field followed by first-hand documentation across different locations in India. The title photo depicts the setting Sun and its glittering reflection in the delta waters along the coast of Sagar Island in South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal.




The beautiful glittering waterscape of Hooghly River at Diamond Harbor, South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal


Water has the unique ability to soothe and calm the mind. The reflective surface of the water acts as a mirror, showing us our own reflections as well as the surroundings. It also gives us the opportunity to reflect on our thoughts and emotions and strengthen our minds. Wide stretches of water such as in the ocean or big rivers and lakes, sunshine or other reflections on the water surface, slow flowing streams, mountain waterscapes with rushing water, and many other water forms in nature, all offer different perceptive experiences and opportunities of engagement. Sensual perceptions of blue spaces that we gather on exposure concern features like the color of the water – inherent and reflected, its sound, temperature, motion, and the overall context. These sensual perceptions offer different kinds of benefits for the human mind. Active engagement through blue physical activities further adds more gains resulting from the activity itself.




A beautiful blue water view at Jaisamand Lake in Salumber District, Rajasthan


An important sensual perception while viewing water concerns its color. Color has the power to change unpleasant feelings into positive feelings, to “level out” emotions, and to produce distinct moods. The intrinsic color of water is pale blue, and different hues of blue are often visible when we visit water bodies in nature. Blue water is associated with coolness, peace and tranquility. Thus, this color of water has a calming effect on the mind, lowering the stress level, making us feel more relaxed, and infusing positivity when we’re located in such a water environment.



White colored water at Elephant Falls near Shillong in East Khasi Hills district, Meghalaya


White color is associated with calmness, purity, as well as strength and positive energy. At waterfalls and rapids, the color of water often appears white. This happens because millions of air bubbles get trapped in the quickly descending or turbulent water, which look white due to diffraction of light from their surface. Further, the air near a waterfall is charged with negative ions that are formed as a result of collission of the water droplets spraying off the rock surface. Negative ions are known to increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the body, helping to alleviate depression, relieve stress, and boost energy. Hence visiting a waterfall can help fight depression by making us feel more uplifted and energized, ready to make new beginnings.




Green reflections in the delta waters of Sundarban National Park in South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal


Sometimes, the color of water may appear greenish, due to either algae and other kinds of plant growth inside the water or reflection from the land vegetation around. Green is a soothing and relaxing color that signifies nature, and hence fertility, growth and development. It also signifies healing and relaxation. Exposure to green color in nature is known to lower stress hormones, decrease negative emotions and increase levels of vigor. Viewing green colored elements in natural water bodies thus brings forth the combined benefits of the natural blue hue of water and natural green colors, bringing peace and enhancing positivity.




Majestic waves in the Arabian Sea on the coast of a village in Alapuzzha district, Kerala


Water waves are aesthetically appealing and watching waves is known to reduce stress and mental fatigue by favorably altering human neurophysiology. Waves comprise complex ever-repeating patterns (or ‘fractals’) that have the capacity to substantially lower stress. The immersive ebb and flow of water waves by the seacoast or along the riverbank triggers an overall calming effect. And when the waves are strong and appear white in color, then the observer can benefit from the cumulative effect of lowered stress along with a more energized feeling. The stress reducing effect of water waves is further enhanced by virtue of its sound which is soft and rhythmic in nature.




Relaxing at a beautiful sunset over the horizon at Sagar Island in South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal


Viewing sunrise and sunset over a water surface is a good way to boost mental health. Watching the sun rise over the horizon – the slowly increasing illumination of the sky, the changing colors and the movement of the sun from its first appearance further upwards - presents an integrated opportunity to feel calm, enhance mindfulness (the ability to pay proper attention to the here and now), and draw energy for an active day ahead. Similarly, witnessing the sun set slowly behind the horizon can help the observer slow down and relax, thus reducing stress and anxiety accrued during the day. Also, sunsets produce a red and orange light spectrum that can help regulate the body’s internal clock, facilitating a more restful and rejuvenating night’s sleep. Other benefits include a boost in mood, and a peacefulness that allows the observer to focus on the inner thoughts and feelings, thus helping self-reflection at the end of the day. When observed over a water surface, the above benefits of these phenomena per se are enhanced by the general calming and relaxing effect of the blue space itself, and that of the light reflections and ambience in the water.




Beautiful white water lilies in Kanwar Lake, Begusarai district, Bihar


Different kinds of biodiversity are often associated with water bodies in nature, flowering plants and other kinds of flora being a common occurrence. The opportunity of viewing flowers is known to produce a psychologically relaxing effect on the observer. The practice has been found to help reduce sensitivity to pain, and lower anxiety and fatigue. Further, different colors of flowers can induce different kinds of psychological effects. Flowers in blue play an effective role in relaxation and stress reduction; while warm colors such as orange, yellow and red, evoke uplifted emotions. White colored flowers offer dual benefit of relaxing as well as uplifting emotions. When located within a blue space containing flowers, the observer can thus draw dual psychological benefits accruing from the perceptive impact of flowers as well as the surrounding water body.




A beautiful green art piece - a lotus leaf with water - floating in Kanwar Lake, Begusarai district, Bihar


Aquatic plants are an important green addition to the biodiversity in blue spaces. These plants and their floating components such as leaves often provide beautiful green sights relieving tension and calming the mind.



Relaxing by feeding fish in Gadisar Lake in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan


Fish is the most important animal biodiversity in water. Watching live fish in blue space is known to be a great enhancer of mood and relaxation, shown by some studies to be more effective compared to viewing plant life in water. Feeding the fish further helps mental health by improving focus and attention, and encouraging new learning and discovery that keeps the mind engaged and active, thus enhancing mental acuity and curiosity. Watching and feeding fish in blue space is an active form of engagement with water that fosters strong nature-connectedness and inculcates nature care, that are important pillars within the blue therapy framework.




Young flamingoes marching in Sambhar Lake in Jaipur district, Rajasthan


Birds are another important part of the biodiversity associated with water bodies in nature. Watching birds (or ‘birdwatching’) in itself is known to offer multiple mental health benefits, ranging from improved mindfulness, reduced stress and mood improvement to inspiring emotions like joy, awe, calmness, alertness and the capacity to take up challenges. When watching water birds, these benefits get further multiplied, depending upon the mental benefits added by the sensual perception of the surrounding waters.




A crocodile basking in the sun on the mudflats of Sunderban National Park in South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal


Among other commonly found wild biodiversity in water habitats are amphibians and reptiles, such as frogs and crocodiles. Interaction with wild biodiversity is found to be of great benefit for mental health. They cause feelings of awe, enhance alertness, mindfulness and positive emotions, and increase engagement.They also boost human-nature connectedness, that in turn encourage caring for nature and animals. By virtue of their location within blue spaces, calmness and relaxation of the mind become a bonus.




A water rapid in river Bhagirathi producing roaring sound in Tehri Garhwal district, Uttarakhand


The sound of water, which also closely correlates with the view of water, its changing colors and variable movement, is yet another important sensual perception with strong impact on mental wellbeing. It can reduce the state of anxiety, produce a sense of pleasure or action, and a relaxed feeling in the mind. People generally admire the sounds of water which may range from calm, smooth musical flows to energetic, roaring sounds. Calm sounds of water, such as from slow flowing streams, are considered to be restorative. Just sitting-and-staring at water with calm sounds can help blanking the mind when one is disturbed. On the contrary, energetic rushing waterscapes, such as descending water rapids or waterfalls evoke emotions and arouse feelings of action. Further, studies show that in comparison to visual blue space alone, a combination of audio and visual aspects of the blue scape is more effective in influencing individuals’ emotions and the state of anxiety.




Enjoying a boat ride in river Ganga at Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh


Boating provides an unparalleled opportunity to disconnect from the daily stressors and enjoy moments of incredible relaxation, calmness and peace. Being in a boat out on the water, surrounded by the vast expanses of the blue space, along with the entire context of biodiversity and other natural features, undoubtedly reduces feelings of anxiety and tension. The color and sound of the water, melody of the rhythmic waves, sensation of the breeze, gentle rocking of the boat - all help stimulate the senses and foster positive emotional responses. These benefits are multiplied when blue physical activities like rowing, sailing or paddling are added. Using an oar, paddles or sails for controlling the boat requires continuous focus which encourages mental clarity and mindfulness. Further, the physical activities involved help release endorphins (‘feel-good’ hormones) which enhance mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression. Learning to steer a boat in itself improves self-esteem and confidence, besides inducing spirits of adventure and exploration. Boating is also often a shared experience, spending time with friends and family, which helps reduce feelings of loneliness or isolation.




Benefiting from a walk along the Kargil Beach in South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal


A popular blue physical activity is walking or jogging in or near water along the beach or riverbank. Research shows that walking in blue spaces helps reduce stress and anxiety, enhances vitality and improves mood and feeling of well-being. Getting into and moving around in the water increases mindfulness and self-esteem while carrying out the physical activity itself. It can make one feel less isolated and happier due to the induced feeling of connectedness with the nature around. In the case of beach walking or jogging, additional benefit comes from the minerals and negatively charged ions in the sea air which help reduce stress; improve alertness and concentration; and aid in diminishing depression. Also, the sound of waves alters the brain’s wave patterns, producing a state of relaxation.




Bathing in the natural waters of Siang River in East Siang district, Arunachal Pradesh


The touch of natural water in a river or lake or the ocean adds yet another layer of mental benefits from blue spaces. Bathing in the open can reduce the feeling of isolation due to the connectedness with the space around. Besides, the natural water temperature can improve emotional health since cool water during the spring and fall tends to bring a soothing impact on the nerves, while warmer waters in the summer help relax the muscles. Research also shows that exposure to blue spaces from early childhood improves the likelihood of the psychological and emotional benefits to remain throughout life, that can further promote a pro-nature attitude in later years.



Enjoying diving in the waters of a local stream in Udaipur district, Rajasthan


Diving and swimming in open blue spaces is a physical activity that offers mental health benefits that are unique. These activities help improve mood and wellbeing, reduce mental distress, and enhance mindfulness, which tend to sustain mental wellbeing across a lifetime. Research reveals that physical feelings of buoyancy and weightlessness in open water activity create a sense of freedom, help uncover hidden and unknown strengths, and build confidence and resilience. They induce psychological strength as the swimmer navigates physical risks in water as also emotions like fear, anxiety, frustration, and excitement. Finally, as intense multisensory physical activities with full-body immersion, these may stimulate a sense of nature engagement, which may induce people to become more ‘ecocentric’, promoting’ care for nature.




Capturing the movement of soothing waves at Sagar Island in South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal


The preceding sections have succinctly highlighted the importance of viewing and engaging with blue spaces in different ways. Taken together, practicing the art of photography on elements of blue space has an even greater potential to transform distressed mental states. Focusing through the camera lens or simply taking a picture with the mobile phone can help detach from the daily stressors and improve the mood. Photographing waterscapes is a creative activity that involves capturing the therapeutic power of blue space around. This, in turn, boosts mindfulness because by being behind the camera, one is in a flow which allows the focusing of energy solely on the moment and task at hand. The result is a calm mind, restored inner balance, boosted confidence and valuable documentation of the positive experiences of the visited blue space. The photographs can further help deepen the connectedness with the waterscape, fostering an enhanced eco-friendly attitude.




Living on the coast of Arabian Sea in Alappuzha district, Kerala


In light of the diverse forms of engagement with blue spaces in nature and the multifarious benefits described above, it is obvious that living close to natural water bodies, such as the sea, river or lake, is a promising option for improving mental health. Such residence can greatly enhance the opportunity of passive as well as active engagement with water in nature. In fact, studies do show that people who reside near seashores report greater engagement with the surrounding blue space and also more positive mental states regarding stress, anxiety and depression.






This photo story has unraveled how the practice of spending time in or near blue spaces – called ‘blue therapy’ – holds immense value for improving mental health and wellbeing. Engaging with blue spaces can reduce stress and depression, and is associated with indicators of eudemonic (i.e., happiness-producing) and hedonic (i.e., pleasure-inducing) wellbeing such as relaxation, calmness, and improved mood and creativity. Each of the photos in this essay has been presented as illustrative of a particular kind of sensual perception or physical engagement with water in nature. However, in reality, the blue space shown in a single photo is associated with a set of different perceptive features and/or physical activities, and hence simultaneously delivers a number of mental health benefits.

Blue therapy is believed to improve mental health through the triple mechanism of mitigation, instoration and restoration. Mitigation concerns reduction of harms often accrued from a myriad of stressors such as daily workloads, anxiety or urban noise. Instoration helps build capacities to escape from and address the multiple challenges resulting from daily stressors. Restoration enables rebuilding of the emotional and cognitive/attentional capacities that were depleted by stressful and cognitively demanding situations.

The mental health benefits from engagement with water in nature is explained by three interesting theories. First is the Biophilia Hypothesis which proposes that humans have an innate and biological attraction with natural environments containing water that provide a nurturing effect on the physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. Second is the Attention Restoration Theory which suggests that spending time in blue spaces enhances involuntary attention which helps restore voluntary attention fatigue in human information processing. Lastly, the Stress Reduction Theory explains that humans have positive psychological and physiological responses to water settings in nature that tended to support survival and well-being historically in the evolution process because of their high food potential and low risk.

From the narrations presented in this photo story, it is obvious that engagement with blue spaces holds great medicinal value. This approach is definitely health-promoting for all, and hence useful as a preventive medicine. It may also be used as a curative or therapeutic solution for all those who are challenged with mental health crises such as stress, anxiety and depression. Mental distress is a significant global problem, estimated to be affecting around one billion people worldwide. It is predicted to grow further with increasing urbanization and digitalization which limit human engagement with nature as well as society. In India too, these factors are gaining strength, and hence the number of people affected by mental distress will undoubtedly rise sharply.

The current scenario of growing mental health crisis is scary and cannot be controlled or treated by conventional therapies alone. There is a need to promote alternative solutions that can support treatment of diagnosed cases as well as prevent new ones. Blue Therapy fits very well into this framework as a curative-cum-preventive medicine. Also to be noted is that in comparison to green space, which is increasingly promoted in urban environments as a therapy for mental health, blue space far outweighs the benefits.

Therefore, there is a need to mainstream Blue Therapy as a tool for enhancing mental health and wellbeing. Since blue therapy depends on blue spaces, it is deeply rooted in the water sector. But unfortunately, while the value of water for different purposes such as drinking and sanitation, economy or for nature is well recognized, its value for promoting mental health is yet to be recognized within the water sector. This photo story has attempted to fulfil this gap by elaborating the different dimensions of the linkage. It also provides important food for thought for promoting this linkage within the sector. First, it highlights the need to conserve and promote the health of our existing water bodies in nature, so that people can sustainably access natural blue spaces and improve their mental health. For this, water managers must plan and execute effective action for ensuring sustainability of water resources from qualitative as well as quantitative perspectives. Second, it spells out a word of caution for especially our urban planners who, in the name of urban development, often end up encroaching blue spaces for constructing urban utilities. They must not only stop such encroachments but also integrate plans to preserve and promote natural blue spaces amidst the urban concrete jungles. Third, it implies the need to raise water consciousness among the masses with regard to the importance of water in nature for mental peace and harmony, so that sustainable management of blue spaces can be enabled through everybody’s effective participation.