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Fishing and Mental Health

Chicken Soup For The Mind

By Marty Benson, DNR Communications

You’ve seen the bumper stickers that proclaim, “I’d rather be fishing”, “A bad day of fishing (still) beats a good day of work”, or some clever variation.

We know they’re true, but why, and how can you explain the reasons to someone who doesn’t fish or questions them?

First, fishing means being outdoors, and experts say that’s good for you. Dr. Jessica Clemons is a psychiatrist recognized by Forbes magazine as a leader in making mental health a part of the national conversation. She’s also a beginning angler and a consultant for the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF).

"Exploring new wellness-sustaining activities like fishing is a great way to refill the wellness deficit you may be in following last year's shutdowns,” said Dr. Jess, as she is best known by many. “This is especially true for people who don't have previous fishing experience.

“Learning new skills promotes a sense of accomplishment and getting out of your routine can help you get in touch with your friends, your family, and yourself."

Sarah Jane Bunner, a Project AWARE mental health coordinator with the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, cites research done by the American Psychological Association on outdoor activities. A representative study of 20,000 adults found that those who spent at least two recreational hours in nature during the previous week reported significantly greater health and well-being, whether that was on one day or spread over the full two weeks of the study.

Among the study’s conclusions: "Contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, subjective well-being, positive affect, positive social interactions and a sense of meaning and purpose in life, as well as decreases in mental distress."

And that’s from just being outdoors. Add a rod, reel and water, and the benefits multiply.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) provides an extreme example. It’s a national program that uses fly fishing as a rehabilitation tool to serve disabled active military service personnel and is recognized as an innovative leader in the field of therapeutic outdoor recreation for the disabled. Its Indianapolis-based chapter is one of the largest and most successful in the Midwest.

“This success is founded on the experience of our participants who notably, and noticeably, feel the change in their lives through participation,” said Jeff Reinke, who volunteers as PHWFF’s midwest regional coordinator and is a healthcare facility architect. “I have employed nature themes in my designs for the past 30 years, so it’s no surprise to me that the act of standing in nature, fly fishing, works wonders.”

PHWFF revolves around five core activities: fly tying, flyrod building, fly casting lessons, fly fishing education and, of course, fly fishing outings. The best outcomes occur when participants take part in all of them.

“We have found over the years that some vets are better at or like some activities a little more than others,” Reinke said. “That’s true of the general population of fly anglers as well.”

It’s also true that fishing of any kind can help almost anyone else cope with plain old every-day, nagging stress.

Laura Oliver is a licensed mental health counselor associate with Orenda Counseling, LLC who lives in and serves the Indianapolis area. She is also a recreational angler. Venturing out to try your luck, she says, benefits both your mind and your body—even if you don’t make a meal out of your catch.

“Fishing can be wonderful for our mental health,” Oliver said. “Spending active time outside allows us exposure to Vitamin D from the sun, which can help with increasing the production of serotonin, which is the hormone that helps us with happiness and decreasing depression and anxiety.”

Physically, some of the actions involved in fishing are exercise, but there’s a mental health aspect to those, too.

“Movements like casting, reeling, and rowing engage muscles in our body that release endorphins, which are brain chemicals that can reduce pain and increase positive feeling in the body,” Oliver said.

Some of those actions, she says, can even allow our brain to process information better through bilateral stimulation, which is any action that takes the form of left-right pattern that allows the two sides of the brain to communicate more effectively. An example is operating the two paddles if fishing from a rowboat.

The executive functioning skills and ability to solve problems can also be improved by any number of decisions an angler needs to make, such as figuring out the best location to fish, choosing the proper bait or lure, and the direction to cast.

“Doing all of those helps strengthen our brain functioning,” Oliver said.

Once the line is in the water, anglers can practice positive mental exercises, including problem-solving, sharper focus, and even mindfulness and meditation. There’s also the need to be keenly aware of changes in tension of the line and the activity in the water, which can help you enter a sharper state of focus.

“This can even allow us to shift our focus away from stressors that we carry with us that increase our anxiety and depression,” she said.

If you fish with someone else, particularly someone with whom you are emotionally close, the benefits multiply beyond the obvious pleasure from engaging in positive social interactions.

“Our social engagement system can be activated through time spent face-to-face with another person, increasing our sense of safety with others and guiding us to a better state of calm,” Oliver said. “If that person is your child or partner, fishing provides an opportunity to increase your attachment and bond, which also increases feelings of safety and security in a relationship.”

According to Reinke, the mental health benefits are a constant, no matter how many or how few fish are caught.

“The stories and friendships developed are the strength of PHWFF, not the fish count,” he said.

So there really is no such thing as a bad day of fishing, just good and better.