Forest bathing & therapy: A natural shower of health benefits

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If someone told you that you could increase mental peace while you sit in a forest doing nothing, would you believe them? Idly looking at trees, watching and feeling the river water flow by you, playing with the pebbles, experiencing the soft, rough, and uneven texture of the soil, and listening to the twitter of birds can dramatically influence physical and mental health. If you haven’t experienced the positive effect of indulging in nature, you should try forest bathing.

The Japanese have a term “Shinrin Yoku.” It loosely translates to “Forest Bathing.” Shinrin Yoku, after it emerged in the 1980s in Japan, became a world-wide approach to mental health. Nature is innately therapeutic, and we tend to connect with nature by instinct. This tendency is called Biophilia (Bio: Nature, philia: Love). “Shinrin Yoku” simply means experiencing the natural environment – letting your brain absorb the sensory flood of nature. Forest bathing can be a casual wellness activity or it can be a forest “therapy” for coping with a variety of mental health issues.

Your brain will shower you with gratitude if you decide to take just 15 minutes out of the screen life and walk in a forest area or a garden. Forest bathing can begin with something as simple as a nature walk and can get as intense as a deep spiritual dive into a forest. Forest bathing is a therapeutic application of Biophilia, and its validity and benefits are well documented in research. You can read all about Biophilia here.

Research in Japan and China has proved that connectedness with nature has various positive effects on your body and brain. Immersing yourself mindfully into nature – exposing all your senses to its components – can do wonders for you. Let’s see how. 

6 Mental health and Physical health benefits of forest bathing & therapy

Forest bathing: Spending time in forest has many health benefits

1. Exercising outdoors can improve your mood and thinking clarity 

Studies[1] have shown a clear improvement in mental well-being if one chooses to exercise in a place surrounded by trees and birds’ sound. Those who combine exercise with Biophilia or Forest bathing can have a decreased risk of depression and tension. They are likely to feel less angry and be clearer about their thoughts, i.e., less confusion. 

2. Forest walking has positive effects on cardiovascular reactivity

Suppose you were sleeping in your office desk and suddenly, your boss enters asking you to come into his chamber. Will your heart rate and blood pressure change? Cardiovascular reactivity measures exactly that. Cardiovascular reactivity is the difference in your heart rate, blood pressure, and other measures before and after experiencing new stress. In this case, it is the difference between your resting heart rate while sleeping and after your boss calls you. 

Researchers used this test[2] of cardiovascular reactivity on a group of 48 young adults to understand the effects of nature on well-being. They asked the participants to walk in an urban environment, and then in a forest environment. Researchers found that the heart rate was significantly lower when they walked in a forest environment. To top the cherry, their negative moods and anxiety levels also decreased. Heart health is one of the most significant health benefits of forest bathing. This is why doctors recommend a nature walk for those with cardiovascular risks and complications like hypertension.

3. Nature has a relaxing and stress-busting effect

Nature is almost synonymous with relaxation unless you try to do what Bear Grylls does without the preparation. In a small study[3] done on 12 male students, 6 walked into nature and observed a natural forest landscape, and the rest entered an urban landscape. Researchers scanned their brains and found less prefrontal activity (area of the brain associated with thinking) and lowered cortisol (stress hormone of our body) in those who walked into the forest area. I think it’s safe to say that Shinrin Yoku not only relaxes your body but also prevents your brain from overthinking! 

4. Connecting with nature has global mental health benefits

When I say mental health benefits, galore of benefits lie under the umbrella. Studies[4] have found that an activity as simple as walking in a garden can reduce feelings of hostility, depression, and anxiety by a great deal. Acting on biophilia can lower stress and improve overall well-being. In fact, some psychologists in Japan have started using forest bathing (combined with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) as a therapy to treat patients with hypertension too. 

5. Forest bathing can improve the quality of life

The toll of living in an urban environment may be hidden from our consciousness, but our body and mind are aware of it on some level. Our overworked schedule shouts at us, and your urban life can even lead to the “sick building syndrome” – Living in an urban closed removed-from-nature building can compromise the well-being of its inhabitants. This has certainly reduced our quality of life. Forest bathing – the art of simply being in nature, mindfully submerging ourselves in whatever nature has to offer – can increase our quality of life[5]. In fact, connecting with nature and beauty is one way to increase happiness.

6. Nature can foster spiritual growth

Nature can help with spiritual health. In a study[6] on cancer patients, researchers found that connecting with nature helped increase their spiritual and emotional health. That helped them cope with the stressful procedure of chemotherapy. 

Coping with trauma isn’t the only spiritual aspect of nature. Humans form an identity for themselves. They typically create their identity using their traits and achievements or close relationships. For example, “I am a computer scientist” or “I am a father of 2”. However, there is another level of identity called the Meta-personal self-construal. This level of identity includes things that go beyond ourselves and society. For example, your meta-personal identity can consist of “a total oneness” with nature and all lifeforms. Questions like “who am I?” can have answers like “I am nature and it moves through me.”

A large portion of spirituality is about tuning into your relationship with the universe’s grander aspects like the forests, oceans, space, stars, etc. The meta-personal self-construal adds a spiritual angle to life. And, that angle can even make people more sensitive and caring toward the environment

Forest bathing is a coping mechanism and form of therapy

I could go on and on about the health benefits of forest therapy, but I think it’s evident that exposure to nature or forest bathing is a healthy activity. Having less anxiety, stress, calming heart rates, and spiritual health is just the start. Nature not only protects but also prevents. Forests are therapeutic because they can counter work-related stress, defend against mental illnesses, restore energy lost in dealing with mental health issues, improve immunity, and increase productivity & concentration at a holistic level. Combination therapies like yoga in nature can help cope with depression even when other treatments fail to help. Humans have an evolutionary basis that attracts them to nature. Our bodies have an inbuilt healing system, but we have experimented with it enough and have lost the natural touch. This concept leads us back to our old friend and urges us to flourish that connection. 

How to practice forest bathing and forest therapy

Ideally, one should walk into a forest environment, but practically, it’s not accessible to all of us. So choosing to be in a garden will equally enrich your experience. You can also indulge in gardening activities or build indoor plant micro-ecosystems. The essential thing to consider is ‘being present’ and experiencing the environment as it is. Follow your curiosity and let it bring something to you. Some organizations also offer guided tours to forests that teach you to get the best out of Biophilia and Forest bathing.

There is something therapeutic about watching the greenery, smelling the woods, and just being in nature. Explore forest bathing and biophilia. Share on X

Even indulging in nature via virtual reality and computer games can have positive effects on mental health. However, the digital approach is less potent than visiting a natural ecosystem. Try making nature getaways when you can; don’t miss the opportunities you get.

Jason Ward, an American naturalist, said, ‘Being able to smell the fresh air and disconnect from the news and your phone – there’s nothing like it.’ 

This may sound ironic as you read this on your screens, but I hope it delivers the message. This article and the research might not help you understand the benefits intimately, so go out and feel them yourself. You might come out taller than the trees! 

Why are forests therapeutic? Well-being is in the air, soil, and microbes!

Perhaps you might want to know why exactly does nature create such benefits? Why does Biophilia improve well-being and why is forest bathing therapeutic?

Researchers[7] propose many different ways in which the air, soil, and microbes affect our brain health.

Plants release Phytoncides, an organic compound, as a defense against herbivores and decay. They permeate the air, and we inhale them. Some are antimicrobial, and some increase the immune response.

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At least in mice, they are known to reduce the heart’s response to stress as well as reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and relax the nervous system.

Negative ions in the air are also a major reason why nature makes us feel good. 

Energetic events like waterfalls, tidal waves, winds, cosmic rays, thunder, etc. produce molecules with an electrical charge. The negatively charged ones, called negative air ions, have a huge effect on our well-being:

  • improve concentration 
  • reduce fear & stress 
  • decrease stuffiness, nausea, dizziness, & headaches 
  • reduce inflammation
  • help to recover from serious mental health disorders

We inhale or ingest beneficial microorganisms that affect our immune system and brain function – Like the Mycobacterium vaccae which is found in water, soil, and vegetation. 

It produces and alters neurotransmitters like GABA, serotonin, melatonin, and acetylcholine that can reduce anxiety and improve cognitive function.

There is a hypothesis called the “Old friends hypothesis” which says that most modern illnesses are due to inflammation because we have disconnected from the ecosystem we evolved in. According to that notion, the discord between us and nature is responsible for modern-day ailments. The hypothesis may be over-generalizing, but we can at least manage some health problems by forest bathing!

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