Recently, I went forest bathing (also known as nature therapy) which is adapted from the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku. It originated in Japan in the 1980s and has become popular around the world. In fact, some research suggests it is becoming as popular as the yoga trend that began 30 years ago.
Forest bathing involves walking through the forest slowly and taking in the surroundings through all the senses. The health benefits of this practice have been scientifically researched and documented. Studies find that it lowers heart rate and blood pressure, reduces stress hormone production, boosts the immune system, and improves overall feelings of wellbeing.
I can attest to these benefits because I lived in a country house on a secluded road surrounded by forests and lakes. Initially I spent weekends and holidays there, and eventually lived there full-time and commuted to work in the city. I remember how excited I felt every time I came home after spending a day in the city because I felt a sense of peace and calm. When I was away for too long I became homesick.
I loved walking the forest trails mindfully and immersing myself in the sights, sounds, smells and sensations around me: blue jays and robins flying from tree to tree; babbling brooks; trees and plants with fragrant flowers and foliage; sunshine on my face, infusing my body with energy; textures of the pine cones and stones I collected along the way; and tasting wild raspberries that I picked.
During this time, I also worked with genocide survivors. Colleagues asked me how I was able to continue doing this work for more than 20 years without burning out. Early in my social work career I knew I could not be effective in trauma work without consciously engaging in self-care practices. Spending time in nature became an important part of my self-care regime. It nourished and replenished me because I was able to relax and unwind. I would not have been able to continue without a regular dose of nature. It’s reassuring to know that scientific evidence now confirms these benefits.
When my editor suggested I focus this article on the reason(s) forest bathing is trendy today, I became curious why this practice is gaining popularity around the world. What is it about society today that motivates people to connect with nature? What unmet need is being fulfilled? Here’s what I’ve learned.
We are biologically programmed to live in a natural environment. A 2017 literature review found that “humans have an inner biological attraction to nature and its importance in our human development.” It’s based on the theory that humans evolved in nature over the millennia and we are “drawn back to where human physiological/psychological functions began and were naturally supported.” In other words, it’s where we feel most comfortable and at home with our origins.
Another reason we are drawn to connect with nature is because we no longer harmonize our biological functions with natural rhythms. We’ve moved away from synchronizing our bodies with the cycles of the sun and moon. “These days most of us tend to be out of sync,” says Carol Venolia, architect and author of Healing Environments. “We get too little sleep, awaken by an alarm clock, jumpstart ourselves with caffeine and sugar, work indoors under steady levels of electric light all day and into the evening – and then have difficulty sleeping.”
“Being outdoors, and away from artificial lights, helps synchronize your biology to natural circadian rhythms,” says Cyndi Gilbert, a naturopathic doctor. “Scientists investigating chronobiology, the study of biological rhythms, have shown that our connection to natural light/dark cycles helps to regulate our sleep, our moods, our stress levels, and our hormones.”
Our urban lifestyles alter our natural inclination to connect with nature. We spend the majority of our time indoors, either at home or at work, driving our cars or shopping in megastores with artificial light. These factors may result in “nature deficit disorder,” a phrase coined by author and journalist Richard Louv, who describes the negative consequences on children’s health and behaviours when they are alienated from the natural world.
Forest bathing continues to spread “perhaps as a backlash against modern society’s obsession with indoor-use technology and office culture,” says journalist Meeri Kim. Today adults spend an average of five percent of their day outdoors. In fact, the term technostress,was coined by clinical psychologist Craig Brod, who describes it as a “modern disease caused by one’s inability to cope or deal with information communication technologies in a healthy manner.”
In our technology driven society, many of us spend most of our time indoors tied to our smartphones, computers and televisions. Spending time outdoors is severely lacking in this electronic age. Forest bathing helps us to combat this indoor epidemic by giving us a break from our electronic devices and provides us with many health benefits.
Doses of nature are also becoming options for medical treatment. In fact, some family physicians are writing prescriptions that read: “Five times a week… spend 30 minutes at a park near your home.” This treatment plan is part of a growing field of medicine called “ecotherapy,” whereby doctors in the United States are prescribing nature-based programs and exercises instead of medication to help their patients cope with mental and physical illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, attention deficit disorder, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
“We write prescriptions for all kinds of medicines,” says Dr. Robert Zarr, founder of Park RX America. “In addition to that we’re starting to see nature and parks, not just as a place to recreate, but literally as a place to heal yourself.”
Perhaps forest bathing is gaining popularity today because we know instinctively that our lives indoors are negatively affecting our bodies, minds and souls. We yearn to return to our roots to replenish and recharge. In the words of John Muir, nature author and conservationist, “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”
After writing this article, I realize that I’m beginning to suffer from nature-deficit disorder since selling my country home. Since awareness is the first step in taking conscious control and making changes, I’m taking steps to put nature back into my life. Walking mindfully through local parks is a good beginning. I’m choosing to do this. How will you remedy your nature-deficit disorder?