Too Stressed to Feel Blessed? Try Forest Bathing!
As the famous explorer John Muir once wrote, “Wilderness is a necessity.” And, when it comes to managing anxiety and other stresses of the modern world, connecting with nature can be the best medicine.
In fact, according to The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, just 40 minutes of walking in a forest can visibly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the human body, essentially acting as a magical “reset button” during stressful times.
Now more than ever, we as a society should be looking into forest bathing as a legitimate form of self-care.
What is Forest Bathing?
First developed as a healthcare strategy in 1980s Japan where it is known as Shinrin-yoku, forest bathing is the practice of meditatively walking in nature as a way to calm the mind.
Scientifically, it has yielded results such as reduced blood pressure, improved focus in children with ADHD, increased energy, reduced stress, and more. But forest bathing is more than simply cure-all stress remedy for us overworked humans. It has also proven to increase the immune system’s fighting power. According to a 2007 study, individuals experienced a 50 percent boost in the anatomical disease-fighting agents called “natural killer cells” after routinely taking two-hour walks in the forest. The study even revealed that forest bathing increased anti-cancer proteins in female subjects undergoing forest therapy.
But, like most things, everyone’s experience with forest bathing is different. Some people are moved to express their grief and cry, while others slip into a child-like joy.
“Whatever their reaction, people walk away feeling, ‘That’s what I needed,” says Ben Page of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. “It’s a process of remembering and awakening to something we already knew. Our ancestors evolved with nature, and we have forgotten how to have that open relationship.”
The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy holds retreats and workshops across the world, and offers registered guides to lead newcomers on their first forest bathing session. For some first-timers, having a forest therapy guide is the way to go. Much like a yoga of meditation instructor, it can be helpful to have a pro to show you the ropes.
Still, Page insists that this practice can be done anywhere nature is found. He has even conducted a “forest walk” inside of a senior care center, where he brought plants and other natural objects to a group of seniors who had varying health and mental ailments. Page narrated the walk for the seniors, asking them to imagine walking a wooded path while he played soothing nature sounds on a speaker.
“People with advanced dementia were remembering things from their childhood,” Page said. “There was a real healing effect that took place. A 90-year-old who had severe dementia shared memories of being 10 years old and building a cabin in the wilderness with her dad. Her relationship with one pine cone that she was holding was bringing her all of this joy and memory.”
And it’s not just people benefitting from this bond. Page said practicing nature therapy tends to transform people’s thoughts about protecting the environment. Currently, he is working with the Costa Rican government to help train guides in order to promote ecological tourism and make the country a hub for the practice.
“It teaches you to honor and protect nature,” Page said. “We cannot singlehandedly save our planet with facts and numbers. You need to feel it in your body and your heart. It was Jacques Cousteau that said, ‘People protect what they love.’”
6 Tips for Forest Bathing
Here are some tips the association gives to first-timers:
1) Don’t overthink it, or choose a strenuous or difficult-to-navigate trail. The key is relaxation and mindfulness.
2) Unplug and hit the “off” button, as technology will pull you away from your present surroundings.
3) Make your walk lasts two to four hours, in order to fully immerse yourself in nature and find calm.
4) Tune into your senses, what do you feel, smell, see or hear? Walk slowly to take it all in.
5) Say “Hello!” It may seem odd at first, but keep an open mind. Approach a tree, flower or any part of the wilderness that draws you in and introduce yourself. Spend some time next to your new friend, imagining a conversation, or simply reflecting on its beauty.
6) Find a place to sit for at least 20 minutes that’s isolated with minimum distractions. Take time to absorb and appreciate your surroundings; some forest bathers sing a song about, write or verbalize their appreciation for nature.