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Utilizing “Blue Mind” for Mental Health and Addiction Treatment

Blue Mind Addiction Treatment

I just came from two grueling days of meetings where I spent my time sitting across from other mental health professionals. Inside of a white, cold, brick room we tried to conjure up something half-way interesting to share with one another that hadn’t already been talked about with 10 other people hours before. All of this while attempting to stave off the insanity of sounding like a broken record. This is a regular occurrence for me and millions of other Americans trying to make “it”. 


Fortunately, I made it out and ventured to the sea where I experienced what Wallace J. Nichols calls in his book Blue Mind, “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.” I was in, on and under the water, taking surf lessons with Uco, a native of Puerto Rico and former surf champion. After sharing what I did for a living, he told me he was coming up on 11 years sober. This sparked my interest into the power of water and how it could help someone recover from addiction, depression, PTSD and other various mental health issues. 


So many of us, particularly young adults who’ve been raised in the social media era of performance, expectations and self-worth, are stressed out. We all know someone who is addicted to alcohol, drugs, gaming, food, sex, retail therapy, you name it. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter popular for pleasurable reward and motivation, floods our brains with “feel-good” chemicals which in turn, motivates us to seek this feeling again and again. We’re isolated, impulsive and irritable looking for the next “fix” that’ll make it all go away…for the moment.  


What if instead of prescribing your pills, the doctor told you “take 2 waves and call me in the morning”. First, you’d probably wonder if you're hallucinating and second, you might wonder how this is possible? That’s exactly what’s done at Momentum Recovery. Supplementing traditional therapeutic and pharmaceutical care, adventure-based programming on the water harnesses the “good” dopamine that’s released when surfing, swimming, diving, fishing and boating.  


Dopamine release is associated with novelty, risk, desire, and effortful activity; it's also a key part of the system by which the brain learns. All of these factors are present in activities like surfing. When I first stood up on a surfboard I felt alive. I felt challenged. I felt a mixture of fear and determination. Each wave we took was unlike the other. Each wipe out was a humbling experience of the power of the ocean. Aerobic exercise (such as surfing) also produces endorphins, the opioids that affect the prefrontal and limbic areas of the brain involved in emotional processing, and create the feeling of euphoria known as runners high. This feeling however doesn’t subside once you stop surfing, the negative ions created by the waves triggers the release of endorphins and serotonin, the “happy chemicals” long after one is ashore. 


Blue Mind is not just associated with sport, it also relates to being in nature. Focused time in nature activates other parts of our brains, giving our fatigued frontal lobe a break. Areas of our brain associated with emotions, pleasure and empathy can now take over, providing a calming influence that is measurable in brain scans and blood tests alike. Being in nature, specifically coastal settings, gives our brains a break from “directed” attention which is associated with executive functioning to “involuntary” attention which allows the brain to rest in an environment which is predictable and requires minimal mental effort. Studies show that even viewing nature scenes can increase empathy and other emotional chemicals in the limbic system. 


We are not trying to make surfers at Momentum Recovery, rather we want our clients to use surf and other experiential therapy to change their brain chemistry. We want to get these individuals out of their typical “old neighborhoods” and introduce them to a new setting, new friends, and new routines that are more positive and fulfilling. Our mission is to provide every individual that we encounter with the tools to achieve a balanced life and sustained recovery. Balance shows up in doing the mental, emotional and spiritual work while having fun and finding connection in community. 


As for me, you’ll surely find me paddling out on the glassy water, breathing in the salty air and thanking the heavens for another day and another wave.