Seek solace in the silence of the clams

To the Editor:
Devastating hurricanes, fierce wildfires, savage semiautomatic gun massacres, terrorist truck attacks, threats of nuclear war, political strife, pick your trauma; 2017 had something for everyone to stress about. The almost daily barrage of disturbing events is sure to threaten the mental health of even the most stable among us. So how are the rest of us supposed to cope?
I, for one, usually seek some relief in contemplating the sometimes comic absurdity of the human condition. My first impulse is to follow Frank Costanza’s lead and scream “SERENITY NOW!” at the top of my lungs. Sadly, even that trusted therapy has failed to free me from my funk.
When all else fails, reboot to the default condition. In my case, that’s shellfish. If you think we had it bad in 2017, consider the poor oyster. Happy as a clam at high tide? Hell no! Living in the intertidal zone, an oyster’s life is one of constant stress: constantly changing water levels, extreme temperature and salinity fluctuations, pollution, toxic algal blooms. Lucky for the oyster, its stressful environment has led to genetic adaptations on the molecular level in the form of heat-shock proteins that help it cope.
As anyone who has ever shucked an oyster knows, however stressful an oyster’s day-to-day existence may be, it clings valiantly to life. For those of us who would rather deceive ourselves into believing that we are putting them out of their stressful misery, our karmic reward goes far beyond a great meal. We are blessed with a relief from stress almost equal to the stress we relieved. Oysters are very high in zinc, more than seven times that of other foods. Zinc plays a critical role in human physiology, especially mental health. Through complicated chemical pathways, zinc is an antidepressant, and relieves anxiety. Under stressful conditions, zinc is lost from the body at high rates, and must be replaced. In addition to zinc, oysters contain B vitamins, omega-3s, taurine, and selenium, all recognized for reducing anxiety.
Better yet, shellfish can provide stress relief beyond merely eating them. It is widely known that time spent outdoors is good for us. Recent scientific research into the Japanese practice of shinrin–yoku (forest bathing) confirms reductions in blood pressure and anxiety following a period of nature attunement in the woods. Many in the U.S. have taken up this practice, and call it forest and nature therapy. Folks on Martha’s Vineyard have taken this to a higher level. They practice “clam therapy”! I have seen the “Clam Therapy on Martha’s Vineyard” bumper stickers for years, but only recently touched base with Don Klepper-Smith, the mastermind behind this therapy. Don traces his love of shellfish and clamming to childhood summers in Waquoit with his grandmother, who loved the sea, and his uncle, who was the town shellfish warden. Ever since, he has found solace in the water and found “clamming one of the best ways to connect with nature.” Don, a self-employed economist, and his wife Marcia now live in West Tisbury. About 10 years ago after a long, stressful day at his computer, he told his wife, “Hey, I think I need some clam therapy!” And so the phrase was born that is Don’s way of saying, “I just need to chill and get regrounded.”
Psychological studies help to explain the mental health benefits of clam therapy. As in forest therapy, just being outside in our species’ natural environment is soothing. The sun’s heat and UV rays stimulate the body’s production of endorphins and serotonin, natural chemicals that help us feel more relaxed and less stressed. The blue color of water and sky is soothing. The sound of lapping waves can bring about a state of blissful calm, and coastal air is full of stress-fighting negative ions. The repetitive movements of scratching with a rake are meditative, while catching a clam provides a pleasurable surge of dopamine. To reach an even deeper peace, consider repetitively chanting, “Bi-val-vi-fy, bi-val-vi-fy …” My blood pressure has already dropped 10 points! Call it what you will, clam therapy, quahog quietude, mollusk meditation, oyster ohm. Seek solace in the silence of the clams.
Finally, scientists have found that altruistic behavior also releases endorphins in the brain. Consider sending your tax-deductible donation to receive your “helper’s high.” Thank you!

Rick Karney, shellfish biologist and director emeritus
MV Shellfish Group