Forest Bathing & Nature Therapy
Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) as a Healing Modality
Longing for adventure and unsure of my next steps, I decided to teach English overseas for a few years upon completing my undergraduate degree in 1992. I moved to a small, rural area of Japan, planning to teach for two years, then return to the U.S. and start grad school. The adventure I was seeking found me, and I ended up planting small roots in Japan, living there for the next seven years.
As a somewhat shy, introverted 20-something, I often longed for some semblance of anonymity while living on that southern island in Japan. At 5’9” with blond hair and pale freckled skin, I didn’t blend in all that easily. It was during these years that my running hobby became more of a serious pursuit and I began training for my first marathon. Running along the rivers, past rice paddies, up and over mountain roads deep into bamboo groves, I found peace and calm.
I had only begun running in college as a way to build fitness for rowing, my chosen sport. I was a sedentary child and teen: an inhaler-puffing asthmatic who wheezed after only half a lap around the middle school track. Discovering running in my twenties was like unlocking this treasure chest deep inside me, brimming with gifts, all free. Running gave me a sense of competency, resilience and grit. I learned to embrace my physical body in a way I never thought possible. Moving outdoors, on my own terms, filled me with a new sense of strength.
I look back upon those years with gratitude. Running helped me navigate some difficult emotional waters. A daily run tempered my anxiety and boosted my mood. My sense of self took shape and I began to see tenacity and strength where I once saw only fragility and weakness.
Forest Bathing & Mental Health
Nearly 25 years later, I remain a runner, living on an island. As in Japan, I find myself drawn to green spaces, forests and trails. Until recently, I was unaware of the traditional Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” Unknowingly, I had been practicing this healing modality on my runs. Intuitively, I knew that without my daily run or hike, the quality of my day would suffer. Outdoor physical movement had become a nonnegotiable daily practice.
As we have long known, research supports the mood-elevating, antidepressant effects of daily exercise. It has been shown that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression, improving depressive symptoms to a comparable extent as antidepressant medication and psychotherapy. I was naturally drawn to running and over time, I was able to reap the psychological benefits I hadn’t known were inherently available to me by simply lacing up my shoes and heading outside.
There is current research that supports the healing properties of immersing oneself in nature, specifically when surrounded by trees. Stress reduction, boosted immunity, lowered blood pressure and improved mood are all linked to time spent outdoors in nature. I view ‘nature therapy’ as the perfect complement to any mental health treatment protocol. As a therapist, I join my clients as they courageously seek greater awareness and understanding of habitual patterns that may be causing distress in their lives and relationships. I often return to the metaphor of ‘entering the wilderness’ with my clients. I will pace you on this journey, provide the trail map, point out roots and rocks to avoid, while cheering your growing endurance and strength.
How to Forest Bathe?
Access to clean, green, unspoiled nature is a something I no longer take for granted. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve had access to as many trails, mountains and forests as my heart desired. My parents were outdoorsy backpackers and mountaineers, so my brother and I were naturally exposed to the benefits of “shinrin-yoku” early on. I’ve gradually learned that daily exposure to fresh air and clean green spaces is right up there with food, water, and sleep for my own mental and emotional health. Privileged to have trees in abundance right outside my front door, forest bathing is a seamless part of my routine most days.
Incorporating this practice into your life needn’t be a huge undertaking. Here are a few simple ways to start forest bathing!
Find a green space near your home, work or school that you have easy access to. It may be a dense forest trail, a neighborhood park, a shoreline, or even an urban path with a bit of green vegetation nearby.
Approach your forest bathing experience with a childlike openness and curiosity. This is not necessarily a sweaty, strenuous endeavor; but an opportunity to mindfully experience the outdoors.
Leave your phone at home. Engage all your senses. Meander. Slow down. Breathe deeply in and out. Close your eyes. Notice how sounds and smells sharpen.
Take note of anything you notice after your experience. How does your body feel? Has your heart rate slowed? Have your facial muscles softened? Is your mind less cluttered?
Make this a rain or shine practice. Experiencing nature’s moods, the changing seasons, the rising and setting of the sun - this attention to subtle shifts in the natural world reminds us that nothing is permanent. Just as nature cycles, so do we. Difficult emotions, feelings, seasons of life: they eventually pass.
Nature provides a beautifully transformative wellness model available to us all.