How to be mindful by the sea and feel less stressed

Being by the water makes us happier and healthier, says author and researcher Dr Deborah Cracknell. Learn how to take a mindful moment beside the sea

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Whatever else you plan to do at the beach, try to spend some of your time simply being. Mindfulness, the act of keeping your mind and attention in the present – on the sights, sounds and smells around you – helps prevent thoughts ruminating and gives your mind a break.

Scientific research in this area is growing rapidly because those who practise mindfulness report that it helps reduce stress and anxiety and improves mood.

Aim to immerse yourself in the coastal environment and really appreciate where you are. Turn off your phone so you can bathe your senses in the stimulation around you without fear of distraction.

If your mind starts to wander – pondering problems at work, what you are going to make for dinner, whether you left the iron on – keep bringing it back to the here and now and see if you can stay present without getting lost in thoughts. Every time it wanders (and it will), just calmly bring it back, without judgement.

I could never stay long enough on the shore; the tang of the untainted, fresh, and free sea air was like a cool, quieting thought.
Helen Keller

Take off your shoes and walk on the beach barefoot, even if it’s a little chilly. It can be a powerful sensation to physically connect with your surroundings. It really will make you feel grounded.

Aim to use all five senses to explore the environment around you, really noticing the small details.

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Listen to the waves

Close your eyes and listen to the sound of the sea. The slow, churning, white noise of the ocean can be comforting. Is the sound loud or quiet? Does the sea sound calm or choppy?

Hear the waves breaking and dispersing on the beach. Listen to the different sound the waves make as they retreat again, drawing sand or pebbles back down the beach with them. Is the frequency of the waves regular or irregular? Listen for a while to see whether you can hear if any waves are bigger than others.

Can you hear the cries of gulls or any other sea birds? Are they all the same type or are there different calls? Can you hear any other living creatures?

It is often breezy at the coast, sometimes positively windy. Listen to the sound of the wind swishing around your face and body and making a rustling sound through your hair. Is the wind blowing consistently or in gusts?

What other sounds can you hear? Take a few moments to identify the individual noises. Can you hear people talking or dogs barking? What is the furthest sound you can hear?

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Taste the sea air

Stand facing the breeze with your eyes closed. Open your mouth and taste the air. Can you taste salt on your tongue? Your tongue should capture the salt from the sea spray circulating in the air.

Now lick your lips. Do they taste salty too? If you’ve been exercising on the beach or have had an energetic walk, can you notice a slight bitter taste of sweat on your top lip?

If you’ve brought a picnic to the beach, eat slowly with your eyes closed to really taste what you’re eating. Don’t just wolf the food down automatically. Try to identify individual flavours in the foods you are eating.

If you can get organised, bring a selection of snacks with you to taste at the beach – sour gherkins or pickles, sweet berries, salty olives or chunks of cheese, bitter dark chocolate. Really concentrate as you taste them and feel their effect on your tongue.

Slowly sip the water you’ve brought to the beach and notice it has never tasted crisper, cooler or fresher than it does right now.

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Touch the sand and salt water

Stand near the sea with bare feet and feel the temperature of the sand or pebbles beneath your toes. Do they feel warm or cool? Now step nearer the sea and let a wave break over your feet. Is the water warmer or cooler? On sunny days, the water in rock pools and sandy pools will feel warmer than the sea.

Pick up a selection of pebbles and shells from the beach. Sit down and feel the textures with your fingers and thumbs. Are the pebbles smoother than the shells? Now rub them gently on your cheeks to see whether you can feel the difference.

If it’s a sandy beach, take a handful of dry sand and let it run through your fingers, feeling the grains falling. Compare a handful of wet sand and dry sand. How different do the textures feel? Is one heavier than the other?

Sit down and move the sand through the spaces between your toes. Feel the different textures of the smooth sand, the tiny pebbles and the pieces of shell. Is the sand soft and powdery, or rough and abrasive?

If there are rocks on the beach, do they feel rough and craggy – even sharp – or smooth and worn down by the sea? Run your hand over them and feel the texture. If there is seaweed growing on the rocks, does it feel silky and smooth, or slimy to the touch?

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See the pattern of the waves

See the rhythmic pattern of the waves as they form out in the sea, slowly get bigger and build strength as they move towards the beach, then break on the shore. Watch for waves of different sizes – are some bigger than others?

Watch the delicate salt spray billowing up as each wave hits the beach. Stand in the shallow water and watch the sand or small pebbles under your feet moving forward and backward as the waves come in and out.

Look further out to sea. Can you see any boats? See the horizon where the sky kisses the sea. Can you see where the sky ends and the sea begins?

See the different colours on the beach, the subtly different shades of the pebbles and the shells, the colour of the sand. Now look for bright colours: coastal flowers, beach towels, parasols.

Watch as sea birds fly low over the ocean or soar up into the sky on a current of warm air. Search for movement in rock pools – can you see any living creatures?

If it’s a windy day, see the wind catching the tops of the cresting waves and creating spray. The direction of the wind can change through the course of the day (tending to be an onshore sea breeze early in the morning and an offshore land breeze later in the day). If you are at the beach all day, see if the wind shifts and how it affects the spray on the wave crests.

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Smell the refreshing sea air

When you first arrive at the beach, take a few deep breaths and smell the salty air. Sea air has a refreshing, organic aroma.

Can you identify any other smells in the air? Close your eyes and breathe deeply and slowly. Suntan lotion, wet dog and fried food and are all common seaside smells.

Smell your skin before and after you bathe. Does dry skin have a different smell to wet skin? Does wet hair smell different to dry hair?

The green, herbaceous smell of seaweed will also emanate from the rock pools. The smell will be even stronger if the tide is out and the seaweed is exposed to the sun.

If you have brought a picnic with you, enjoy the aromas of the food before and as you eat. Although they are separate senses, taste and smell are closely entwined, working together to enhance our perceptions of food.

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How to take a mindful walk by the sea

  • Slip off your shoes and start at the top of the beach. Feel the way the dry sand moves under your feet as you walk slowly along the beach. Walk on your heels for a while, pressing them into the sand, then walk on your toes and look at the difference in your footprints.
  • Now sit down in the dry sand, pick up a handful of sand and let it run through your fingers, watching the individual grains falling. Feel the temperature of the sand – is it warmer on the surface than just below?
  • If you are on a pebbly beach, pick up and feel the weight of a few of the pebbles. Can you guess which will be heavier just by looking at them? Look at the colours of the stones and the different types of rock. Can you find one with a hole right through, or some crystals embedded in it?
  • Lie down on your back with feet slightly apart and your arms a little distance from your body. Let your whole body relax. Feel the supportive quality of the beach as your body settles into it. Allow your muscles to release any tension as you let go of thoughts and simply come into the physical present. Stay in this position for as long as you like.
  • When you are ready, stand up slowly and walk down towards the sea: does the wet sand feel different and cooler under your soles? Look at your footprints in the sand as you saunter along the shore line. Can you make out each of your toes in the prints?
  • Stand for a moment and watch the waves coming in and breaking on the shore. See the way they smooth the sand. Are there small shells and pebbles embedded in the sand? Find a pebble or shell that is moving in and out with the ebb and flow of the waves. Track it to see how far it moves.
  • Look out toward the horizon and count how many shades of blue you can see on the surface of the sea. Is the sky a different blue to the sea?
  • Step into the shallow water. Does it feel warm or cool on your skin? Stand still and feel the movement of the waves against your legs. Can you feel sand being washed away under the soles of your feet as the waves go out?
  • Bend down and wet your hand. Does the back of your wet hand smell different to your dry hand? Lick your hand and taste the tang of salt.

This is an extract from By The Sea: The therapeutic benefits of being in, on and by the water by Dr Deborah Cracknell (Octopus Books, £14.99)

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