Forest Bathing and the Healing Potential of Nature
Have you ever noticed the feeling of peace and comfort you get after a day spent wandering the woods? Well, there’s emerging science behind why that is and there’s even a phrase to describe the trend––forest bathing.
Also known as nature therapy, forest bathing is becoming increasingly common as we continue to rely on technology more than ever before. Although only recently gaining mainstream recognition, people have been trying to get connected with nature in some way or another for centuries—its name just hadn’t been coined yet.
But what do we mean by forest bathing, actually? No, we’re not talking about taking a bubble bath in the forest (although that sounds pretty dreamy, too). We’re talking about spending time basking in the glory of nature for therapeutic purposes.
In this day and age, it can be tough to feel connected with the earth when we’re constantly interacting with technology in one way or another. Whether it’s on our computers at work, setting the alarm on our phones, or finding our location on a map, we’re connected pretty much constantly in one form or another.
Forest bathing may just be the answer to this problem. But first things first, what the heck it?
What is forest bathing?
Forest bathing is one of many of the philosophies fitting within the umbrella term of ecotherapy, also called nature therapy. Proponents maintain that they offer therapeutic benefits such as treating mental illness and achieving inner peace.
One major influence for forest bathing as we know it is shinrinyoku, a Japanese term that describes the act of taking trips to the forest to relax and feel rejuvenated. First defined in the 1980s, it saw an increase in popularity as a way to combat the adverse effects of the country’s tech boom.
How to go forest bathing
To practice forest bathing, you only need access to some form of nature. Any natural environment will do, even if it’s a sandy beach, a mountain valley, or snow-covered prairie. Whether you’re alone or with a certified forest therapy guide, your main task is to head out into nature with no distractions. In other words, no Instagramming your forest bathing trip or listening to a podcast on your headphones. Instead, be mindful of everything around you.
We’re sure you’ve heard the buzz surrounding mindfulness, and some people can’t sing its praises enough. Now, imagine combining mindfulness with the powerfully calming effects of Mother Nature—then you’ve got forest bathing. It’s as simple as going on a walk through the woods and noticing the complexity of the interwoven micro-ecosystems surrounding you. Whether it’s the soil under your feet or the pond covered in algae, a walk in nature puts you right on the front lines of our living planet. Better yet, try going forest walking with a guide who’ll lead you through every step of the process.
Japanese researchers began looking at the psychological and physiological effects of nature and forest therapy and, unsurprisingly, they found that spending time with the natural world does us some serious good. And the plus side? You don’t need to pay anything to reap the benefits.
Forest bathing is primarily self-guided and it’s free to take a walk in your local park. That means there’s no need to shell out big bucks to benefit from this practice.
Love the great outdoors? Take a look at our article all about hiking for some more inspiration.
How to forest bathe
Although forest bathing may have therapeutic value for some folks, it’s not like therapy in the traditional sense. By that, we mean that you don’t actually need a licensed therapist to accompany you. Even so, you’ll find that there are guides out there who lead groups or individuals into the forest to help them get the most out of their experience communing with nature.
Like a yoga teacher, these forest guides lead pupils through the entire process of mindfulness. Unlike psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or traditional health care, ecotherapy and forest bathing don’t have one particular methodology, and for this reason, there’s no one right way to do it.
Worried about cost? Here's what to do if you can't afford therapy.
To practice forest bathing on your own, head to a nearby public forest or nature reserve and walk among nature (careful not to trespass!). Practice breathing techniques like counting your in-and-out breaths, or inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for four seconds. It doesn’t matter the method, as long as you take deep breaths that keep you focused on something other than the stress you might have in mind.
Try to immerse yourself in your surroundings completely. As you take in the fresh air, pay attention to the crackling of branches underneath your shoes, the smell of pine in the distance, and the feeling of wind as it rushes through the trees. Listen for the sound of birds chirping, insects buzzing, or the nearby stream babbling.
Continue walking, or take a seat and let yourself be overcome with your environment’s natural beauty and reflect on how it feels to be alive, no longer connected with your phone, but simply part of the living, breathing environment around you.
Need a break from your phone? We'll show you our top tips for doing a digital detox from your phone in this article.
Does forest bathing work?
Some practitioners of forest bathing claim that spending time among the trees could lower blood pressure, reduce the amount of cortisol in the body, and even boost the immune system. According to one study done by Kings College London in 2018, being outdoors, seeing the sky, and hearing birdsong may actually lower stress levels and increase feelings of mental wellbeing.
Although more scientists are performing studies on the effectiveness of ecotherapy and forest bathing, there’s still not enough scientific evidence to put it in the same leagues as medical treatment. But perhaps that isn’t even the point. According to Dr. Qing Li, president of Japan’s Society for Forest Medicine and one of the most prominent trailblazers in the field of shinrinyoku, forest bathing is “preventative medicine, not a treatment.”
If you’re battling a mental illness like anxiety, depression, or OCD, forest bathing should not be a replacement for visiting your psychiatrist or doctors. However, if practiced alongside medical treatment, spending some time in a forest atmosphere could very well lift your spirits and brighten your day, and may offer an array of health benefits.