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The Sound of Water: Nature's Stress Relief

This week in massage school we have a project due in Hydrotherapy on "The Benefits of Water". I chose to research the relaxation effects of the sound of water, since this is something I incorporate into my life on a daily basis. I personally love listening to my white noise app and turning on a good rain storm, or waves crashing on the beach. Jacob sleeps with an Amazon rainstorm playing on his iPad every night.

Many Massage Therapists and spas incorporate water sounds into their offered therapies because they have seen first hand how it relaxes the client.

What about these noises makes us so relaxed? What exactly happens to our bodies when we listen to this natural white noise? More importantly, is there any science that backs this up?


Why we need more water in our lives...

From a spiritual standpoint, flowing water's soothing sounds have long been associated with meditation, a relaxation method used for over 5,000 years. Michael Wenger, dean of Buddhist studies at the San Francisco Zen Center, says that, "Moving water is "white noise," in which you can hear many things. Each individual may hear a different song in the water. Just listening to the sound--not tying it to anything, just letting sound wash over you--is a way of letting go of your ideas and directly experiencing things as they are."

The sound of water has many positive effects on our mental health. Science suggests that the rhythm of ocean waves and tides coming in and out can affect the rhythm of the neuronal “waves” in our brain, encouraging a more peaceful pace of thought.

In listening to water sounds, such as during meditation, we learn how to be present in the moment and directly experience things as they are instead of getting lost in rumination.

What is rumination? The process of continuously thinking about the same thoughts, which tend to be sad or dark, is called rumination. A habit of rumination can be dangerous to your mental health, as it can prolong or intensify depression as well as impair your ability to think and process emotions. Listening to white nose such as water sounds can help calm our mind and get us out of that cycle.


The SCIENCE behind it...

Researchers now say they’ve pinpointed a scientific explanation for why sounds from nature have such a restorative effect on us mentally: According to a new study, they physically alter the connections in our brains, reducing our body’s natural fight-or-flight instinct.

To investigate the connection between physical and mental states and background noise, researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in England recruited 17 healthy adults to receive functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while listening to a series of five-minute soundscapes of natural and manmade environments.

When they studied the fMRI results, the researchers noticed that activity in the brain’s default mode network varied greatly depending on the background sounds being played. Specifically, listening to artificial sounds was associated with patterns of inward-focused attention, while nature sounds prompted more external-focused attention.

Inward-focused attention can include worrying and rumination (remember that word!) about things specific to one's self—patterns that have been linked to conditions involving psychological stress (including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder). Physically, participants’ reaction times were slower when they listened to artificial sounds compared to natural ones.

Slight differences in heart rate were also detected, indicating a shift in the body’s autonomic nervous system response. Overall, nature sounds were associated with a decrease in the body’s sympathetic response (fight, flight, freeze) and an increase in parasympathetic response (rest & digest). It is interesting to note, that the higher the stress level of the participant at the start of the study, the more dramatic the increase in the parasympathetic response was.

Click here to view the full research study in PDF.


How does this translate into everyday life?

Lead author Cassandra Gould van Praag, PhD, a research fellow at the University of Sussex, says the study’s findings may have real-world impacts—especially for people with high stress levels. “I would definitely recommend a walk in natural surroundings to anyone, whether they're currently feeling frazzled or not. Even a few minutes of escape could be beneficial.”

If you can't get outside regularly, or don't have water nearby, there are simple solutions to incorporate water sounds into your everyday routine. A small water fountain at your desk, a white noise app on your phone while you work, or a simple Youtube meditation video with water sounds, can help help to decrease stress levels throughout the day and increase overall wellbeing. After all, who doesn't need a little more peace and zen in their lives??

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