When the world feels like too much, or when anxiety hits, or I just can’t seem to feel comfortable there is one place where I can always find my feet again, where I can feel grounded and whole—the woods. From the minute I enter the forest everything begins to shift. I breathe differently. I slow down to notice the patterns of colors and light. Even though these are the same woods I see each day the palette of colors shifts entirely depending upon the light and the season. As I walk through the woods I find my center again, sometimes solid, sometimes wobbly, but I can feel it and I can bring it home with me. The Japanese have a term for this walk in the woods: Shinrin Yoku “Forest Bathing.”
While I am sure that this practice of Forest Bathing is actually quite ancient, the practice was created in 1982 by the Forest Agency of Japan to encourage citizens to lower their stress and increase their well-being. Forest Bathing is defined as ‘making contact with and being in the atmosphere of the forest.’ I think of it as forest mindfulness.
How does it differ from a standard walk in the woods? It differs only in your attention. You bring your attention to the woods—using your senses as fully as you can. Smell the air and the earth and the leaves. Look at the colors, the textures. Listen to the sounds of the forest—birds, the crunch beneath your feet. Shift your view, look up, look out, look down. And use your body—feel the ground under you, touch the bark or the leaves, raise your arms up and imitate a particularly inspiring tree--pretend your feet are roots reaching deep into the earth. Research shows that simply upon entering and standing in a forest, your physiology shifts to a healthier state: cortisol levels are lower, there is a lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than in a city environment. Other studies showed that regular Forest Bathing reduced anxiety and depression and increased immune functioning. Being out in nature makes you feel more alive and makes your brain work better. In fact, even looking at pictures of nature improved how your brain works.
I have known a number of returning veterans who chose to use the forest and the mountains as their re-entry: they hiked the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Coast Trail. My grandfather was a World War II veteran notorious in the family for his difficulty in relationships stemming from the war: but he was able to create a relationship with nature and I believe this saved him and allowed us to know at least some of the best parts of him. He maintained a section of the Appalachian Trail in the Adirondacks and while it was a volunteer job, it was also medication.
So whether you can take your medicine in the form of a walk in the woods or in the form of a picture of a tree, the forest is a powerful medicine. It knows where you are. Let it find you.
Want to connect with nature?
© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014