ecotherapy, nature, psychology, self-help, well-being

Ecotherapy — Forest Bathing

I’ve just returned from another stroll through the woods!! I really felt like I needed to get a bit of fresh air and a good dose of green. It’s such a warm and sunny day, but the forest is wonderfully cooling and refreshing. We’ve recently bought an old house here in Holland, so there’s a lot of renovating to do, like painting walls and installing new floors etc. However, it’s a bit dusty and it’s good to have breaks. Do you ever feel like you need to plunge yourself into nature?

Now-a-days many of us spend much of our time in environments void of natural elements. This has a negative impact on our psychological and physical well-being. There is a continuously growing body of evidence demonstrating that being in nature is very beneficial to our health in various ways. Many of us enjoy nature walks and strolling through woods; we seem to know instinctively that it’s the right thing to do when we get home from a long day at work. When I worked in Cornwall I was lucky in that I usually offered therapy based in Medical Clinics surrounded by countryside. This gave me the option of even having lunch outdoors when the weather was nice and sometimes, if I wasn’t too busy, I even had a short walk in the fields after lunch. When I lived and worked in a city, I did my best to have a walk in the nearby parks before or after my therapy clinics.

Sometimes, however, this instinctive urge to go outdoors may not be as clear to us especially if we are suffering from depression or anxiety. Often this is when we would most benefit from nature, so at these times the best thing to do is just to go out, even if we don’t really feel like it. We need to trust that we will start feeling better gradually by going outdoors regularly. In fact, we now know through scientific research that nature has some well evidenced therapeutic effects on all of us. I certainly feel this personally when I’m going through a stressful period of life and at these times I might even need to almost drag myself outdoors despite all the excuses my mind is making not to go (bad weather, too busy, too tired etc.). The reason I manage to get myself out at times like these, is simply because I know from experience I’ll feel better afterwards. A walk through the woods can allow us to distance ourselves from problems and even gain a different perspective or solution to something that might have been troubling our minds. The woods are soothing in general; I remember during my worst years of teenage angst stomping into my grandparents’ forest and after a while I’d return home much calmer and with less turmoil in my heart. Back then I had no idea I was engaging in Ecotherapy or Shinrin yoku, but I’m so grateful I did have these positive experiences of respite in nature, as I’m sure it made things easier to process back then and also set a good precedent for adulthood.

Ecotherapy is a term used for the psychologically beneficial effects of nature. We also know of it as Nature Therapy & Green therapy. There are many types of ‘being with nature’ that have been found to be supportive of our well-being. Today I’ll talk a little about ‘Forest bathing’, also known as ‘Shinrin-Yoku’, which is one form of ecotherapy. The term Shinrin-Yoku was coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in 1982, and can be defined as ‘making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest’. As I mentioned above, there is increasing scientific evidence for the positive impact of nature on our wellbeing. For instance, one Japanese study (1) produced results showing that forest environments promote significantly lower concentrations of cortisol (a stress hormone), lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nervous system activity (responsible for “rest and digest”), and lower sympathetic nervous system activity (responsible for our “fight or flight” reaction)  than do city environments. This type of effect on our nervous system promotes a general sense of psychological wellness and calm. Another study involving several research institutes in Japan (2) found that hostility and depression decreased significantly when people spent the day in the forest. In fact they found that stress levels were related to the magnitude of the Shinrin-Yoku effect. The more stressed people were, the greater the soothing effect of the forest was!

It’s also clear from numerous studies that not only does the forest have a positive impact on us psychologically, it is also physically healing. For instance, walking in a forest, but not an urban area, increases serum levels of didehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) (3). DHEA is said to have cardio-protective, anti-obesity, and anti-diabetic properties (4). Ming Kuo (5) states that regular forest walks could potentially protect against obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease. Kuo also suggests that the forest has a hugely beneficial impact on our immune systems and reviews several studies identifying that walks in forested, but not urban, areas enhance immune functioning. Forest walks appear to boost the number and activity of anti-cancer (so-called “natural killer”) cells and the expression of anti-cancer proteins (6, 7, 8, 9). Another study found that two 2-hour forest walks on consecutive days increased the number and activity of natural killer cells by 50% and 56%, respectively, and activity remained boosted at a significant level (23% higher) even a month after returning to urban life (10). Furthermore, another study indicates that walking in a forest, but not in urban areas, reduces inflammatory cytokines (11).

The above research I’ve briefly mentioned is only a tiny ‘taster’ of all the studies and investigations carried out by numerous scientists across the world about the positive impacts of Forest Bathing on our psychological and physical health. In fact, I could have gotten seriously ‘lost down the rabbit hole’ of this area of research, as it’s truly fascinating! This blog, however, is not the place for a full academic research review 😉 However, I hope this glimpse of all the the health benefits provided to us by woods and forests has motivated you to do a little of your own reading on the subject. Better yet, I hope to have inspired you to get out there and enjoy your local woods or a leafy park. However, please don’t despair if you haven’t got easy access to trees, as it appears that the positive impact of Shinrin-Yoku lasts for a whole month. Maybe you could even plan a weekend nature get-away with your friends or a loved one!!

Finally, I would just like to add that being in nature allows us to practice Mindfulness with more ease. It may require less effort to stay in the present moment when we are surrounded by the natural environment, as it anchors us into the ‘now’ through all of our senses. For the purposes of this article I won’t discuss mindfulness further, instead I’ll leave that for another time hopefully in the near future!

Maybe you already practice Forest Bathing or some other type of Ecotherapy? I’d love to hear about what you find helpful!

Works cited:

  1. Park BJ, Tsunetsugu Y., Kasetani T., Kagawa T., Miyazaki Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ. Health Prev. Med. 15(1),18-26.
  2. Morita E., Fukuda S., Nagano J., Hamajima N., Yamamoto H., Iwai Y., Nakashima T., Ohira H., Shirakawa T. (2007). Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction. Public Health. 121 (1), 54-63.
  3. Li Q., Otsuka T., Kobayashi M., Wakayama Y., Inagaki H., Katsumata M., et al. (2011). Acute effects of walking in forest environments on cardiovascular and metabolic parameters. Eur. J. Appl. Physiol. 111, 2845–2853.
  4. Bjørnerem A., Straume B., Midtby M., Fønnebø V., Sundsfjord J., Svartberg J., et al. (2004). Endogenous sex hormones in relation to age, sex, lifestyle factors, and chronic diseases in a general population: the Tromso Study. J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 89, 6039–6047.
  5. Kuo, M. (2015). How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. Frontiers in Psychology. 6, 1093.
  6. Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Nakadai, A., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Shimizu, T., … & Kawada, T. (2007). Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology. 20 (Suppl 2), 3-8.
  7. Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Kobayashi, M., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., … & Krensky, A. M. (2008a). Visiting a forest, but not a city, increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology. 21, 117-127.
  8. Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Kobayashi, M., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., … & Miyazaki, Y. (2008b). A forest bathing trip increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins in female subjects. Journal of Biological Regulators and Homeostatic Agents. 22, 45-55.
  9. Li Q., Kobayashi M., Inagaki H., Hirata Y., Hirata K., Li Y. J., et al. (2010). A day trip to a forest park increases human natural killer activity and the expression of anti-cancer proteins in male subjects. J. Biol. Regul. Homeost. Agents. 24, 157–165. 
  10. Li, Q. 2010. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine. 15(1): 9–17.
  11. Mao G., Cao Y., Lan X., He Z., Chen Z., Wang Y., et al. (2012). Therapeutic effect of forest bathing on human hypertension in the elderly. J. Cardiol. 60, 495–502.

10 thoughts on “Ecotherapy — Forest Bathing”

  1. I’ve really been looking forward to your next post, and you have not disappointed 😀 We’ve been eying up a new section in our neighbourhood with a beautiful bush outlook, but there are some issues with it making us hesitate. But every day I walk past I see that outlook and I feel how happy it would make me to wake up to that every morning 😀 I find nature very relaxing and wish I could live in the bush. Unfortunately hayfever prohibits that 😣 More unfortunately, every advantage provided by ecotherapy that you have listed, is something my body needs (except the fighting cancer one, but always handy just in case). Thanks for a wonderful post 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for such a nice comment Wendy, I appreciate it!! I bet you have some beautiful unspoilt wilderness in New Zealand, it’s much less crowded there than in the Netherlands. In fact I’ve always been fascinated by NZ and would love to have a holiday there one day 🙂 Sorry to hear you struggle with allergies, that must be tough. Are there any times of the year when it’s not as bad? Perhaps during those times you can get further into nature. In the mean time just being able to look out onto wilderness or even walk past it easily, can still truly benefit you. While I was reading further into the subject, I stumbled across some research indicating that even just viewing pictures or watching videos of forests is beneficial! I also read about research into nature sounds and how they too have healing influences on our minds and bodies. So don’t despair, as you are likely to still be reaping many of the soothing effects nature has to offer in any case 🙂

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      1. The hayfever is mainly just a few months over spring/summer. It’s pretty common in NZ for people to get hayfever here, but not suffer in other areas of the world. So perhaps if you visit, come in our Autumn, which is also the best time for travelling. Calmer weather, not so busy, and the Autumn colours are beautiful. Yes, we are very lucky with our “nature” here, although we have increasing problems with pollution, introduced pests and urban growth like many parts of the world 😣 But we are never far from beautiful beaches, calm native bush, or stunning mountains, so we are very lucky. I try not to take it for granted. Our North Island west coast beaches are particularly wild, with their big waves and black sands. My favourite for blowing out the cobwebs. Maybe I should do some blogs about NZ’s special places that I have visited? I suppose it’s a long way for people to travel to, and maybe readers would be interested. Sometimes it’s easy to take your home for granted.

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  2. I agree, it really is too easy to take your home for granted! I know when I was younger I certainly took the very peaceful and unspoilt Finnish nature for granted. I didn’t realise how lucky I was until we moved away. It’s quite amazing how once certain things were absent, I truly started to appreciate them. Like foraging for berries and mushrooms was something I valued even more when it was no longer easily possible. Now I’m trying to make the best of wherever I live, as I know from experience that each country will have certain aspects I miss, if/when I move away. Thanks for the tips about timing a holiday to NZ 🙂 If you do decide to write about your country I would certainly enjoy having a read!

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  3. What an interesting post – thank you! I was JUST reading about forest bathing last night in ‘Time and how to spend it’ by James Walkman – gave my bf a little insight into it and we’re planning a hike this weekend 🌳☀️🤗

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, I appreciate it! Sometimes it’s the simplest things that improve our well-being. Things we forget about or even take for granted! The lovely thing is that forest bathing (or some other type of eco-therapy) is free for many people unless they live in a vast urban area. Even then, research shows that having a nature break once a month is very beneficial to our health in many ways 🙂 I hope you have a wonderful hike with your boyfriend! 🌳🌲💚
      Ps. I’ve meant to read Wallman’s book, did you like it?

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      1. Thank you! I’ll get back to you re. the book – as I’m still reading it. I’m enjoying it so far; there’s lots of practical advice in it and I’ve found some interesting ‘general knowledge’ points have come up. 🤗

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  4. Love this! Ecotherapy is a subject that is really beginning to intrigue me. It’s interesting, I think, how ecotherapeutic techniques are sort of latent in most people’s lives. A walk in the park with the dog leaves us feeling a bit calmer, usually. But I love outlining it with it’s history, research, techniques, to formalize it into an actual practice. It’s never been more important than it is today to engage the woods, water and windy places as a sentient place of comfort. Very cool.

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    1. Thanks so much for stopping by and for your comment! Often the simplest of things help us feel both physically and psychologically balanced. The natural world is important to everyone of us and thankfully eco-therapy is also free! Green spaces like woods and parks, as well as blue spaces like lakes, streams and the sea are all important to our well-being ❤️I think it’s crucial to look after our natural environment, as it also looks after us!!

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