Forest Bathing Cleanses the Soul

August 29, 2015

From the get-go, let me clarify that this is NOT an article about an actual bath in the woods. At least not one that involves stripping down and soaping up. No, this article is about the cleansing of one’s psychological state via a mindful walk through the woods. Soul wash instead of body wash. Intrigued?

Forest bathing is quite simply a slow, relatively short walk in the woods with little intention other than simply achieving a more present state of mind. It is not a hike nor is it a power walk. It is the act of meandering through a wooded area and simply being aware of anything and everything that activates one of your five senses – visual, audio, tactile, taste and scent.

Does this seem a little too “New Wave-y” to you? A little trendy? Well, as it turns out, the National Institute of Health, or NIH, offers scientific research to support some very real evidence that this kind of walk lowers blood pressure, lowers levels of stress hormones and increases the effectiveness of your immune system, among other benefits. The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have written about its effectiveness. Japan and Korea both prescribe forest bathing as preventative medicine, and many of their insurance companies cover the activity.

Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, means taking in the forest atmosphere. Compared to mindful walks in urban environments, walking in the woods results in more positive mental and physical health outcomes. Research conducted to date concludes the phytoncides (essential oils) produced by trees and absorbed by humans serve as antimicrobial organic compounds. Natural killer cells (the cells that fight infections and tumors) increase in volume as much as 50 percent, according to the NIH study listed above.

Adrenaline and cortisol concentrations measured in subjects’ saliva and urine decreased significantly, and scores on the Profile of Mood States, which measures a subject’s experience of depression, anxiety and anger, improved consistently. Pretty neat, huh?

Moreover, researchers found that these scores held true for at least 30 days. That means that the benefits of even one 15- to 30-minute walk in the woods lasted for a month. Hitchcock Woods, here I come!

The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, among other organizations, offers certification to individuals interested in leading forest bathing excursions, as well as additional information and research supporting shinrin-yoku. In Aiken, we are extremely fortunate to have Hitchcock Woods. Hopeland Gardens, too.

We are only a few hours from the upstate, and I know many folks who make an annual pilgrimage to the mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina or Georgia for long weekends and family vacations. Could it be there is something more scientific, more neurologically based, that draws us to these areas?

One of the articles I read in preparation for writing on forest bathing discussed the sense of awe we feel when being in a large, wooded area and how it impacts our psyche. Researchers conclude that our state of awe, or what I discuss during counseling sessions as curiosity, contributes to overall improved mental health.

It’s much like when our brain attempts to take in the Grand Canyon, or the first time women and men saw our planet in relation to the moon. It’s the experience of being a part of something larger than ourselves. Awe. I feel that every time I drive back to my adopted home of Asheville. I also feel a noticeable increase in dopamine levels (the happy hormone) when I see a fox squirrel in Hitchcock Woods.

Mental Health Matters is a weekly column here to provide our community with rich, practical, meaningful information that promotes the overall psychological wellbeing of this community. I truly hope readers today will consider bathing (figuratively) in the forest more often after reading this article.

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. She wrote a poem called “The Summer Day,” which I believe gives each of us full-on permission to forest bathe. In the poem she mentions being “idle and blessed” while simply watching a grasshopper eat sugar out of her hand. She challenges the reader to come up with anything more important than simply paying attention and being in the moment.

The last line of the poem is really in your face – “What else do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” That’s a good question. I plan to take this wild and precious life to Cathedral Aisle in Hitchcock Woods to explore that very question.

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