I have just spent a replenishing week in St Ives, a popular little harbour town in the UK, and an area that inspired the Virginia Woolf novel To the Lighthouse. While my husband went paddle boarding, surfing and bobbed on the waves, I walked barefoot along the beaches picking up shells, feeling calmed by the sight of the ocean and refreshed by lungfuls of tangy, salt air. Why does being close to the sea make us feel so rejuvenated? The psychotherapist Phillip Hodson says we're attracted by its relative unchangeability. "When you go and stand on a cliff top and stare out to sea, so long as you cannot see ships, windmills and plastic debris, you're looking at exactly the same sight as the Romans did, or the Bronze Age metallurgists."
The sea reassures us that we are part of the natural order of things. It acts as a subconscious reminder of our mortality. "The waves are powerful but transient, just like our existence," Hodson says. I find that I am just as attracted to a powerful, dangerous sea smashing against black granite rocks as I am to a ripple-free stretch of calm water. For me, the sea offers a reality check as well as a form of healing. Virginia Woolf puts it beautifully, writing that sometimes waves seem "to repeat over and over again? the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, 'I am guarding you - I am your support'." At other times the waves become "a ghostly roll of drums" that remorselessly beat out "the measure of life".
As well as the sight of it, the distinctive sound of waves is important to our well-being. This is why many relaxation CDs feature gently lapping waves, as the psychotherapist Heather Bestel explains. "Studies have shown the sound of water is a natural way to soothe the body and soul, which explains why, when I ask a client to relax and think of somewhere soothing, they will often imagine lying on a beach."
The physical properties of seawater are healing for the body, which is why spas around the globe offer thalassotherapy, or treatments with seawater. "Thalasso" is the Greek word for sea, but the term was actually invented on the Brittany coast in France. Records show that Henry III of France took sea-baths there to cure his "torments", and by 1778, seawater bathtubs had been erected on the beaches in Dieppe. The beautiful people of the day - titled nobility and minor European royalty -flocked to "take the waters", socialise and gossip.
Nearly a century later, Dr Joseph de la Bommardière coined the word thalassotherapié to describe these water cures. Though they fell out of favour after 1940 when modern antibiotics such as penicillin appeared, they came back in vogue in the 1960s after Louison Bobet, the winner of three Tours de France, attributed his recovery from a serious car accident to the healing properties of seawater. He was so impressed that he led a movement to open thalassotherapy centres in France.
Today, saltwater treatments are used to boost the immune system and help the mind and body combat stress and regain a sense of well-being. They can also do wonders for people suffering from muscle pain, joint disorders and post-traumatic stress. Bona fide thalassotherapy spas use only fresh, filtered seawater pumped straight from the sea and warmed to body temperature. The dizzying array of treatments on offer can include water massage baths, jet hydro massages and being sprayed with seawater and oils. Many are functional and results-driven, with little space for niceties - a seaweed wrap, for example, feels rather like being smothered in giant rubber tea bags. If you're stressed out, start with a simple dip in the sea, getting your skin naturally exfoliated by the salt, your head soothed by the sound of the waves, and your psyche replenished and awakened.
Caroline Sylger Jones is the author of Body & Soul Escapes and Body & Soul Escapes: Britain and Ireland, compendiums of places to retreat and replenish around the world. See www.carolinesylgerjones.co.uk.