Forest bathing is an emerging therapeutic intervention with 40 years of research behind it, proving our overwhelming need for time outside.
What is Forest Bathing?
Forest bathing is defined as “immersing oneself in nature by mindfully using all five senses.” Also known as Shinrin-Yoku in Japanese, forest bathing surfaced as a prevention and treatment technique in the 80’s when stress-related diseases started sky-rocketing in Japan (ie. hypertension, heart disease, depression & anxiety). The Japanese government became aware of the epidemic and introduced Shinrin-Yoku as an antidote. There are now countless organizations that offer accredited certification programs in Forest Bathing and even more healthcare programs that implement it as an official medical intervention.
What are the Health Benefits of Forest Bathing?
There’s an overwhelming amount of empirical data that suggests getting as little as 20 minutes a day of forest bathing or direct contact with nature, increases mood, reduces anxiety, pain and blood pressure and, in turn, restores one’s mental and physical health to a significant degree.
But, three days in nature seems to be the magic number for reaping the full restorative effects. Strayer (2016) calls it the 3-day effect – whereby your senses recalibrate after 72 hours and you even start hearing and smelling things in a different way. This is because when we forest bathe, our parasympathetic nervous system (rest & relax state) activates. Allowing yourself to relax on a regular basis physically and mentally, promotes healthy immune functioning and helps speed up recovery, which is especially important during a global pandemic, where managing your day-to-day stress can help prevent further problems.
People living near green space report less mental distress and are more physically active, even when controlling groups for income, education, and employment (all of which are considered social determinants of health). Also, children who grow up exposed to parks are more likely to become environmentalists.
Why does nature make us feel so good ?
There are 3 main psycho-evolutionary underpinnings that explain why forest bathing has such a relaxing effect on humans.
1. Ulrich’s psycho-evolution theory (PET)
Ulrich proposes that human attention is primarily drawn to anything natural in the environment (ex. sounds of rain, sunlight, sight of a tree, touch of moss) because humans have co-evolved outdoors. It may be intuitive, but according to PET, when we’re immersed in nature, like camping in a forest, our bodies tend to automatically become at ease and we experience positive feelings because we are in our natural element. A study on post-operative care looks at how two groups of hospitalized patients where one group was in a room with a window view and the other group had their beds facing a brick wall. The group with a view outside needed less analgesic and spent less days in the hospital. These results suggest that the natural environment has positive effects on public health, indicating that nature therapy can be used to prevent and treat certain illnesses.
2. Kaplan & Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (ART)
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that nature helps us focus through something called soft fascination. Attending to “softly” fascinating stimuli (ex. birds, flow of a river, meadow) not only requires little effort but also leaves mental space for reflection. For example, birding is considered to be meditative because of the act of soft fascination – in other words, it’s good for your mental health because of the concentration it requires but not to the point where your executive functioning and drive state (ie. fight or flight state) is activated. We spend much of our days hyper-focused at work or overwhelmed with processing sensory information that we aren’t left with much room to reflect or introspect. Forest bathing gives us the opportunity to be simultaneously in touch with our senses and mind, without burning out.
3. Wilson’s Biophilia hypothesis
Similar to psycho-evolutionary theory, Biophilia suggests that when our senses are exposed to nature we automatically connect to our primitive roots and process natural sensory information more easily.
- SIGHT: Research shows that we process the color green more easily because of how humans co-evolved in green spaces. We also feel less threatened and relaxed when we gaze at open landscapes. This is because we’re able to identify potential dangers when we see across a horizon.
- SMELL: Olfactory was the first to form in animals and humans which is also why it’s the most powerful way to access memories. Scents are processed immediately through our limbic system which is where our hippocampus is located (our hippocampus processes memories) so we have evolved with a strong smell-brain connection. Natural scents (ex. pine, rain, lavender) have an even more powerful impact on our emotions and create visceral memory formation. This is why the smell of smoke may remind you of a summer camp cookout or why pine scents remind you of Christmastime. Because of aromatherapy research, we now know that lavender increases mood and concentration, and reduces anxiety.
- SOUND: A study done on how different sounds effect our nervous system concluded that there are 3 main sounds that automatically activate our parasymptathetic nervous system (even while we’re in REM sleep state): Birds singing, water sounds, and wind. The opposite effect occurs with sounds of technology and traffic – man-made, unnatural sounds.
Further, Biophilic Design is becoming increasingly popular – whereby hospitals, designers & city planners are incorporating natural elements into architecture and urban spaces.
Oh, K. H., Shin, W. S., Khil, T. G., & Kim, D. J. (2020). Six-step model of nature-based therapy process. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3), 685.
Li, Q. (2010). Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 15(1), 9-17.
Atchley, R. A., Strayer, D. L., & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PloS one, 7(12), e51474.
Williams, F. (2016). This is your brain on nature. National geographic, 229(1), 48-69.
Hansen, M. M., Jones, R., & Tocchini, K. (2017). Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(8), 851. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph1408085