Forest Bathing: An Ancient Cure for Modern-Day Stress

We all know that heavy reliance on technology and screen time can impact our mental health in a negative way. But we often use these vices as a way to escape. What if there was a way to reduce stress in a more natural, healthy way? Thanks to a recent wellness trend, some health professionals are prescribing an activity called forest bathing. What does it mean to go forest bathing? And, why is it so helpful?

What does it mean to go Forest Bathing?

Many cultures have a long history of spending time in nature, understanding it has great physiological benefits and knowing it has a positive impact on mental and physical health.  However, the formal recognition of this eco-therapy started in the 1980s as a study to counter the tech-boom, and to encourage people to reconnect with and to help protect forests. This research supported the historical assumption that spending time being immersed in nature is good for us and has a positive impact on both physical and mental health. In 1982, the term shinrin-yoku was created by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. Shinrin-yoku translates to “forest bathing” or “absorbing the forest atmosphere,” and the practice of forest bathing can be defined as an intentional immersion experience in nature with a focus on your key senses and surroundings. More recently, forest bathing became a popular wellness trend in the United States that was prompted by a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that found on average, Americans spend 87 percent of their lives indoors and an additional six percent in cars, which leaves only seven percent of their life spent outdoors.

How to practice forest bathing

Forest bathing doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it can be as simple as being in any natural environment; it doesn’t have to be a heavy wooded forest to offer benefits. The importance of forest bathing is being outdoors, turning off technology, and shutting out any distraction to allow yourself to sincerely connect with the natural environment around you. It can be a simple slow walk in the woods, taking a deep breath and closing your eyes, listening to the birds chirp and hearing the leaves sway. It can be laying in a park or your backyard and looking at clouds. Of course, forest bathing can also be more structured by way of a guided meditative experience. Ideally, the recommendation is spending 20 minutes a day outdoors, but less time can still have benefits of increased well-being and decreased stress. As opposed to a hike where a destination can be a goal, in forest bathing the goal is to slow down and appreciate the things you hear and see, all while taking a break from your stress.

How forest bathing can help your mental health

In a study conducted by Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, the research showed the benefits of subjects being in a forested area as opposed to a city:
  • Reduces stress by lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and the production of stress hormones
  • Improves cognitive function
  • Increases feeling of happiness
  • Decreases depression
  • Enhances the immune system
  • Decreases pain and speeds healing

Tips for beginners

  • Find an outdoor space. It can be your backyard, a neighborhood park, a trail in the woods – anywhere that you can be surrounded by nature.
  • Be aware of the area and cautious of any security dangers.
  • Slow down. Stop, stand or sit, and start to discover your senses. Move slowly so you can see and feel the surroundings. Ask yourself, what do I see? What can I smell? What do I hear?
  • Practice intentional breathing. Take long breaths deep into your abdomen. Inhale for two counts, exhale for four counts. Extending the exhalation of air to twice the length of the inhalation sends a message to the body that it can relax. Try closing your eyes while doing the breathing exercises.
  • Take your time. It may take time to reach the full 20 minutes but starting off with five minutes is helpful, and you can incrementally increase your time to reach the 20 minutes. Any time spent in nature will be beneficial, so take the time to forest bathe. You deserve it.
  • By Katie Kowalski, Social Work Intern