What is Japanese “forest bathing” or Shinrin-Yoku and how can it improve your mental health?
If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. If you go down to the woods today, you’d better… be aware of the scientifically proven healing benefits of ‘forest bathing’. Okay, okay, so that’s not how the nursery rhyme actually goes. However, it really is true.
Having originated in Japan and China, forest bathing – or Shinrin-Yoku – can be used to help decrease undue stress and potential burn-out. Research has found that immersion in nature has human health benefits, including a decrease in blood pressure, pulse rate and reduced acute psychological distress.
Additionally, a professor from Tokyo, Qing Li, measured the activity of ‘human natural killer (NK) cells’ within the immune system of those going into the woods, looking at before and after exposure. Normally these cells offer rapid responses to tumour formation and viral-infected cells. They’re key to a healthy immune system and cancer prevention. He found that in the week following a visit to a forest, there were significant increases in NK cells in those tested, and these positive effects could still be found up to a month after spending a weekend in the woods.
How can trees help?
Eco-therapy can help to reduce the stress hormone production, boost the immune system and have an overall beneficial impact on feelings of wellbeing. This is particularly beneficial for anyone suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as symptoms of this often include feelings of hypervigilance, insomnia, panic attacks, a lack of emotional connection, and depression.
One of the best parts of forest bathing is that it doesn’t really require much from the individual. It literally means to be in the presence of trees. That could mean going for a walk in the woods, camping in woodland, taking a picnic down to an area of trees, and just generally being surrounded by green space. You don’t need to be hiking or exercising or tracking your movements on your Fitbit. It’s all about doing what relaxes you, from a gradual meander to sitting amongst the trees with a good book – or even just daydreaming or meditating. It’s not just the trees that help but the forest air too, which is packed full of goodness, including something known as ‘phytoncide’ (an oil from plants and wood), which is thought to help improve immune system functioning. Take a deep breath in!
The Shinrin-Yoku programme
While forest bathing isn’t necessarily the ultimate treatment for PTSD, it can be used for reducing or managing symptoms while waiting for treatment – or even to work alongside ongoing treatment. In 1982, forest bathing actually became part of a national public health program in Japan when the forestry ministry first coined the phrase ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ and promoted topiary therapy. They have even gone as far as spending about $4 million dollars between 2004 and 2012 to study the psychological and physiological benefits and have developed specific therapy trails from findings.
It might not be for you
Obviously, for some this won’t be right for them – for some sufferers of PTSD, it can cause them to become very fearful or wary of going places on their own, especially if it is a quiet forest setting with a lot of unknown noises. It can often set off feelings of hypervigilance. As such, it is often beneficial to take a friend or family member along at the same time to help ease these feelings – and also because a good chat and laugh while walking is equally healing for the mind too. If nature appreciation just isn’t the right therapy for whatever reason, then that is okay too – there are lots of other ways to try easing PTSD symptoms naturally.
It’s important to note too, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance from 2005 and 2011 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
IMAGE: Courtesy of Frank McKenna
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