In honour of World Mental Health Awareness Day on October 10th, I would like to share my own very personal struggle with mental health, and how this amazing hobby of ours helped me turn my life around. I’m hoping that by sharing my journey and the information I learned along the way someone may find it helpful and maybe even share it with a friend or loved one that might need help.
Let me now introduce myself, my name is Spencer and I’m a 28 year old from Canada. This story starts one year ago, I had never kept an aquarium or fish. I was in a healthy relationship but I was working a job I hated, and my mental health was steadily declining. The interest in my normal hobbies like art and sports was all but gone. Sports didn’t seem as fun and art seemed mundane. I had little to no motivation or creativity. Friendships became unimportant and some faded away. After a while, sleep was the only thing that felt good and so it became my go-to pastime. I was missing something in my life and no matter how much I thought about it, I couldn’t figure out what it was.
So much reflection on what I was passionate about and what else I could do to be happy - the pressure on my loved ones was great and I began to feel incredibly guilty about my problems but couldn’t solve them. It became impossible to even go to work, feeling like my body was sick every day for no reason. After months and years of these mind games and physical toll on my body, I reached a point where professional help was needed. I could no longer bear the weight of this on my own, as the consequences would be too severe. It felt like I was drowning and I was pulling everyone around me underwater. It felt like death was a better option than life.
I’m lucky to have a very supportive group of family and loved ones around me that showed me love and compassion but encouraged me to seek professional help. I cannot stress enough how important it was to have supportive people around me telling me that they loved me and they would be there no matter what. I started seeing a behavioural therapist and after a few appointments, I was referred to (the coolest) Psychiatrist for more of a medical diagnosis. This is when my life was about to take an incredible turn and to this day, I am so thankful.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression and severe social anxiety, and he prescribed me some medication to help with my symptoms. I felt an incredible wave of relief just knowing that I wasn’t crazy or making this up in my mind. This was a mental illness that I have, that I could now focus on managing. Most medical appointments would’ve ended there and I would’ve picked up my prescription and went on my way. Instead, he began to ask more about my background and interests. I told him I was a creative type and enjoyed all art forms as well as playing sports. He then brought something up to me that I had never thought would ever be an option or a type of healing, Aquariums! He began by telling me how he has always kept aquariums as a young man and into his adulthood. Throughout his medical profession, he has participated in and researched studies about the benefits of nature and animals on the mind and body.
To say I was skeptical would be an understatement. I needed to know more about how this hobby could be used as a therapy and an escape for me. He broke it down for me into a few areas. The main thing would be the fish that we all love to stare at and care for! Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) has been used for decades to treat people with all sorts of mental and physical illnesses and disabilities. I’m sure you’ve seen or heard of “support dogs” as an example to help people with physical disabilities. I had never considered the possibility that keeping fish in an aquarium would have the same positive effect. My doctor then started to explain how a simple aquarium can help mental health. He recommended that keeping a “community” tank with different colours and species of fish would be the most ideal to keep my brain in the moment and completely focused on the aquarium.
The other main reason for keeping an aquarium was the routine of it. He explained basic maintenance to me and the motivation and responsibility one feels to care for their fish and livestock. It’s easier to get out of bed if you have something to look forward to or fish that need you to care for them. As someone who also suffers from ADHD it is scientifically proven that looking at an aquarium for at least 15 minutes per day stimulates serotonin neuroreceptors increasing the production of endorphins. This creates feelings of happiness and actually alleviates tension and pain, which leads to other health benefits as well. We all know how stressful life is and constantly living with this pent-up stress is incredibly bad for your mind and body. So, aquariums have another benefit to help you break out of what feels like permanent life stress.
There is something called the Attention Restoration Theory which explains that prolonged focus or attention causing mental fatigue or stress (such as work or school etc.) can be alleviated by surrounding yourself in a restorative environment. Normally this is done by completely changing your environment (e.g. Going for a walk in the woods after a day at the office.) Fortunately, aquariums check all the boxes (and you don’t have to move anywhere). They keep a wide variety of livestock from fish and snails to shrimp! All of which have different colourations, patterns, and shapes which keep your attention effortlessly. This is the fascination part of the Theory. Focusing on the tank itself removes you from your normal life and gives your brain a feeling of “being away” which is the same feeling you get going for a walk in the forest. This is also a “place” that you have chosen to visit and therefore your brain feels a compatibility that makes you feel calm and relaxed.
Just like the act of choosing to leave work or the house relieves the stress of that place. The last part of this Theory is the extent of this hobby and how long it can keep your positive attention for. The amount of information, graphics, tables, and books on the Aquarium Hobby is astounding. You could be researching and learning constantly and never learn enough. It's more than a casual hobby that you do occasionally like pick up sports. It can be there anytime you need it and with smartphones today, anywhere you need it. The main point of this type of therapy is to stop that awful negative brain loop in your head telling you awful things that aren’t true about yourself. That negative headspace you get in sometimes caused by something and sometimes caused by nothing at all. Next time you find yourself in this space get yourself in front of a tank and try this therapy to break this negative loop or metaphorical “hole” that you find yourself in.
It was at this point in my mental health journey I was pretty convinced that getting a small community tank in my apartment would be greatly beneficial. The following days and weeks turned into obsessive research into the aquarium hobby, which in itself is a form of therapy like I mentioned. This was also the time my medication was starting to slowly take effect (takes 4-6 weeks usually). I originally started learning all the basics of how an aquarium and all the equipment function together to keep livestock healthy. Even during this point of research, my excitement was growing and all the incredible fish possibilities were almost overwhelming. I then found a channel on YouTube by a man named “George Farmer.” This is when everything clicked into place for me. It was one of those moments where I felt like this is what has been missing from my life, this is what I need to be doing. Creating art with living organisms and natural elements was the pinnacle of creativity for me. Even just the prospective thought of owning a tank for myself and doing all this research had given me a new purpose I had been missing.
After watching almost every video George had, I decided to take the plunge and get my own tank. With a community tank in mind, I purchased a 45-gallon aquarium for my living room. My girlfriend was incredibly supportive of this and actually helped pick out some of the décor for the new tank. I wasn’t really aiming for an aquascape but I knew that live plants themselves add more nature to the tank and increase the therapeutic value of the setup. In turn, also making the fish feel more comfortable and more enjoyable to watch.
Upon setup of this aquarium, I had feelings I hadn’t felt in so many years: happiness, motivation, and peace. The maintenance and water changes were something I looked forward too very much as it was a time for me to remain in the moment and take care of living things. At this point, my medication was working and I felt less of the body aches and general discomfort I felt before. I was experiencing the relief of AAT and using Attention Restorative Theory to take breaks from stresses with daily life. This hobby had become a full-on obsession and my next goal was aquascaping.
This is where I discovered for myself that scaping a tank was another form of therapy within the hobby that even my doctor was unaware of. An empty tank became my new canvas; the stones, wood, and plants become my mediums. Spending hours on creating a little slice of nature inside an aquarium was the best therapy. It keeps me involved and stimulated by the current activity and in the moment. The natural materials appeal to our human brains and invoke feelings of calm and peacefulness. It is proven that humans are calmer around nature than around structured spaces.
Aquascaping opened the door for me to do all kinds of new research about plant and fish species, as well as design. This gave me something to look forward to when I woke up, to figure out a problem I had or to learn about some new types of materials or plants I could use. Everything was new and exciting and with every day that passed, my passion and confidence grew. I now had an escape from my bad days or the low emotional states I found myself in. My psychiatrist was right about all of it, just staring into my tanks and watching the fish go about their lives is incredibly calming and transports you away from your current state. It’s hard to describe the impact this hobby has had on my life medically speaking. I felt like for the first time in a long time, I was being myself and happy with being myself.
Mental health is an extremely difficult thing to deal with and there is no one cure that fits all. It takes a lot of work, love, and compassion but I’m hoping that sharing my story will help yourself or someone you know. Share your tank with them or encourage them to try it out for themselves. Aquariums and scaping can be an incredible relief and therapy for a lot of people and hopefully, you’ve learned a little bit about why. If you or someone you know is really struggling with depression or serious mental health illnesses, aquariums are not the immediate fix. Please check some resources below to get help or find help for someone you love. Remember that the most important thing is to get support or support someone you know.
“Learn to light a candle in the darkest moments of someone’s life. Be the light that helps others see; it is what gives life its deepest significance.”
-Roy T. Bennet