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.