Forest bathing – benefits for mental health

If the term “forest bathing” makes you imagine lying in a bathtub surrounded by trees, or perhaps lying on your back – half-awake – in some sort of Disney-eque glade, you’re not alone. I always assumed it was a weird name given to the same act of chilling/napping in a tree-laden area.

So when I was offered to do a session during a hiking weekend with All Trails, the trail finder app, I prepared myself for an hour of kip in the sun. But it soon became clear that forest bathing was not about dozing off and despite feeling exhausted I came away calmer, more energetic and determined to try it once a week in London.

What is forest bathing?

First of all, bathing in the forest is not sleeping or bathing in a forest. And despite its Goop-y name, it first appeared as a “thing” in Japan in the 1980s. Shinrin-yoku or “soaking up the atmosphere of the forest” is a form of ecotherapy which aims to reconnect us physically and emotionally to nature.

Our forest bathing session began with eco-therapist Maria inviting us all to lie down on the grass in a clearing surrounded by bushes and trees. After a few minutes going over some typical meditation techniques (body scan, box breathing, etc.), we were asked to close our eyes and listen.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I sat or lay outside without my headphones. Within minutes of just listening (in the middle of a Derbyshire field), the noises became almost deafening. Birds chirped to my left, leaves rustled to my right. Planes swarmed overhead and my own breathing suddenly seemed to swell in volume. The world is a noisy old place, even when there is no traffic or human chatter. And that brouhaha seemed to drown out my own constant inner monologue much better than the usual podcasts or playlists.

Group sitting on the grass
Our group was asked to lie down or sit on the grass, while being guided through various mindfulness exercises.

Then we spent a few minutes crawling around the area at a minute pace trying to notice every movement. I saw seemingly motionless trees take on a life of their own, swaying as I looked at them. I smelled a thistle for the first time (in 32 years, how have I never rubbed my fingers against the purple flower before?), buried my face in a pile of leaves, felt the grass tickle every toe. With every minute I spent bathing in the forest, the idea of ​​taking the train home / the number of emails I should read on Monday / the cost of living crisis was getting further and further away . It became as mentally engrossing as strength training – but much more enjoyable and much less sweaty.

The third task was to move to be near a tree and focus on that tree silently. I chose a maple laden with thousands of reddish-brown leaves. As the sun shone through the cracks, I imagined what it would be like for the tree to throw all those leaves at me. ‘How would it feel? Comfortable? Like being buried in feathers? What would the colors look like if I was lying in the middle of the leaves? How would that smell?

At the end of the session, we came together to share what we had found during the hour. Many people mentioned feeling connected to their childhood – the sense of exploration and play they had lost as adults. Some cried thinking of past health issues or recently dead dogs; others still seemed lost in thought.

Forest bathing turned out to be a bit of a light bulb moment; I spend so much time outdoors, but I probably don’t get all the benefits because I listen to the radio all the time. I never allow my mind to focus on the trees or plants around me because it’s tuned into Newscast or the Today Programme. I have now vowed to spend at least 10 minutes a week in my local green space without my phone.

What are the benefits of forest bathing?

There is a lot of science to back up its benefits. A 2019 systematic review of research already done on forest bathing found that the practice “can significantly improve people’s physical and psychological health” while studies have shown that forest bathing can help us better regulate our emotions by soothing and calming (the parasympathetic system), instead of fear and anxiety (the sympathetic system).

And anecdotally, forest bathing can really help slow down or quell those racing thoughts. It helps focus the mind, sharpen the senses, and reduce general stress, so you end up feeling energized rather than drowsy.

How to bathe in the forest at home

You don’t have to go to the countryside to enjoy the benefits of forest bathing. A A 2020 study found that spending just 10 minutes in a green space could improve mood and focuswhile reducing blood pressure and heart rate.

And if you want to go even further, a A 2019 study found that spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health. It may seem like a lot, but it’s 17 minutes a day. That might mean taking a seven-minute walk in your local park before sitting on a bench for 10 minutes. This may mean redirecting your runs so that you spend the majority of the session in green space.

As for me, I will start spending a few minutes every Monday morning sitting on a bench in the park next to my house. No phone, no radio, no news. Just listening to people chat with their dogs, the resident cuckoo clock and police sirens in the distance. That won’t necessarily stop me from rolling my eyes at all the stupid things that are being said in the Conservative leadership race, or worrying about my gas bill in October, but then I I fully expect to experience peace.

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Richard V. Johnson