One of the most common bits of advice offered to people who are feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed is to take a walk outside. While this may seem trite, there is some science to back up this folk wisdom—being out in nature really can be healing. In fact, “forest bathing” (or shinrin-yoku in Japanese) has become a popular stress reliever in the past few years, no doubt bolstered by the anxiety so many of us have been feeling amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Below, we’ll take a deep dive into forest bathing and how trees improve mental health.
Forest Bathing: A Beginner’s Guide
There are entire books about the practice of forest bathing, but there’s no need to place an order on Amazon or hunt down a copy at your local library—forest bathing is pretty self-explanatory.
Forest bathing solves the problem of “nature deficit disorder,” or a lack of quality time outdoors. The average American spends 93 percent of their time indoors, with much of that time spent on electronic devices. When you think about how humans evolved and what our ancestors’ lives were like, it’s obvious that we’re simply not built to live this way, and our physical and mental health suffers as a result.
Think of forest bathing as an immersive experience—but instead of immersing yourself in water, you’re immersing yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. Forest bathing means taking a slow walk in the woods. It’s not about exercising—although certainly that also has benefits—but about reconnecting with nature.
While there’s no right or wrong when it comes to forest bathing (other than not rushing yourself), you can add some structure to your time in the forest if that’s what feels best for you. Bring a notebook and journal under a tree; do some yoga or bring binoculars and watch for birds. If you meditate, find a comfortable spot and contemplate your surroundings.
What Science Says About Trees and Mental Health
One of the most prominent voices in the forest bathing movement is Dr. Qing Li, a Japanese researcher and the head of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine. His research has found that:
- Spending time in a forest can improve mental health by reducing stress, anxiety, anger, and depression.
- It can also improve physical health by strengthening the immune system, cardiovascular health, and metabolic health.
- Forest bathing improves sleep patterns among office workers with high levels of stress.
If you’re thinking, “Couldn’t a walk around the block produce the same benefits?”, think again. Many of Dr. Li’s studies included control groups that walked in an urban environment instead of in the forest. The groups that walk in the forest seem to always fare better than the control groups. Dr. Li’s hypothesis is that forests have a higher concentration of oxygen thanks to the trees and that they also expose people to phytoncides, or natural oils that are part of a tree’s defense against disease and infestation.
Give the Gift of a Tree
Because we know that trees help us feel grounded and connected with nature, we founded a service that allows people to give others the gift of a tree. At The Gifted Tree, we plant trees to help people celebrate important milestones and to memorialize loved ones they’ve lost. Instead of wasteful flowers or an unwanted physical item for a person who already has all that they need, planting a tree is an impactful way to make a real difference in the world.