Somatic Relief for The Blues: Easy as a Day at the Beach
with Bette J. Freedson, LCSW, LI CSW, CGP
Walking over to my chair, cell phone in hand, Bev exclaimed (the tone of her voice implying the answer was a given to her upcoming question), “Aren’t these pictures beautiful? Here, look at this one—I took it from the old Fort. Can you spot the house in the background across the inlet? That’s where my father would put the boat in the water to take us up the coast. Those were good times.”
Bev’s photographs, composites of her beloved seas and shorelines along Maine’s southern and mid-coast, comprise a visual memorial to the beaches and bays that provided a measure of playfulness and serenity within the more chronic and painful vagaries of her childhood and adolescence.
A beautiful, intelligent, creatively gifted woman in her fifties, and the courageous survivor of more than one variety of childhood abuse, Bev had been suffering from generalized anxiety and endogenous panic attacks since she’d made the decision to stop drinking six months before.
Collaboration with other providers corroborated the hypothesis that both conscious and unconscious memories of abuse and abusers, stimulated by Bev’s determination to abstain from alcohol and refrain from hasty involvement with unavailable men, were now available to cognitive and somatic awareness. A mixed blessing; not a proverbial “day at the beach.”
“I need to be on or near the water, especially when I feel anxious and have the blues. The sounds of waves and the smell of salt air can calm my anxiety. Away from the water, the feeling is different, too often like something’s crawling all over my body, and then a panicky feeling comes over me—it seems to come out of the blue.”
“I can’t figure out how come I can still feel the creepy crawlies when actually I feel better overall. My friend says she sees a difference; I think she’s right. I don’t feel as edgy, and I don’t flip out as often when I’m upset. But I’ve had all summer to bask in sunlight, and feel the warmth soothing my skin. But– Ahhhch, …” A Maine-ish sound coming from somewhere deep in her throat, made Bev’s nose and eyebrows scrunch up as she moaned, “But Summer’s almost over! Just thinking about it, I’m feeling a little crawly.”
Realizing the potential inherent in this moment, my attention was in two places. While my conscious mind remained in photo appreciation mode, an intuitive investigation was at work. How could I help Bev cope with waning sunlight and cold weather coming; how might she incorporate this familiar warm comfort during the soon-to-arrive brisk Maine autumn and frozen Northern winter?
Then, as it occurred to me that somatic experience might hold a key, I noticed a tiny tickle on my forehead, not a painful feeling but a little tingling sensation, as if my own somatic intelligence was validating my intuition and calling in with a message. In this case, the memory of an article and a short video I’d come across a few days before.
How the Beach Boosts Your Mood
“When it comes to why, exactly, the beach gets you feeling all Zen, there are a few factors at play,” says Richard Shuster, PsyD, clinical psychologist and host of The Daily Helping podcast.
“The color blue has been found by an overwhelming amount of people to be associated with feelings of calm and peace,” says Shuster. “Staring at the ocean actually changes our brain waves’ frequency and puts us into a mild meditative state. A study published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s journal even found that blue is associated with a boost of creativity. The smell of the ocean breeze also contributes to your soothed state, which may have something to do with the negative ions in the air that you’re breathing in. These oxygen atoms have an extra electron and occur in places like waterfalls and the ocean. A study published in the Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine suggests that negative ion therapy could be used to treat symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.”
But it turns out there’s a bit of a placebo effect happening, too. “We’ve been conditioned to think of the beach as peaceful and relaxing,” says Shuster. “We expect when we go to the beach that we are going to relax.”
“Bev, would you be willing to put the phone away, take a gentle breath, and settle back on the couch for an imaginary journey to the beach?”
Bev’s reply came as a perceptible shift into slower breathing and a slight sloping of her shoulders that indicated she had easily settled into trance.
“Now you might imagine being at a favorite beach, hearing the sound of the waves in your mind’s ear, recalling the warm feel of sand on your feet and how the sunlight feels on your face. As you feel warmth soothing you, allow your body/mind to expect and experience these familiar sensations, expecting the same calmness and comfort that relieves tension and anxiety.”
“Just as photos remain in your phone, the healing images and feelings of blue sky and cool water, of warm sun and soft sand can remain inside your inner wise mind and in your body. As you absorb and memorize the comfort of these sensations, affirm that somatic intelligence remembers them and expect that you will be able to call them forth any time you wish to experience the familiar felt sense of corrective relief.”
Bev reoriented from trance with cheeks rosy and eyes sparkling. “I never thought of it like that, but of course, I always see images mentally, especially when I paint or when I compose my photographs. I love the fact that I can feel the waves and the sun, and smell the surf inside my mind and in my body. In fact, the anxiety’s gone This is so cool!—I mean warm!” She giggled.
“Yup, It’s beyond cool.” I agreed. “I wonder if it will work as well for an imaginary walk in the woods in the woods.”
“Well, snap some mental pictures next time you walk.” Bev advised. “And take a picnic!”
Bette J. Freedson, LCSW is a clinical social worker, certified group psychotherapist, and the author of Soul Mothers’ Wisdom: Seven Insights for the Single Mother. Bette’s specialties include stress management, parenting issues, recovery from trauma and the development of intuitive insight. She maintains a private practice in southern Maine with her husband, Ray Amidon, LMFT.