Guest Post: Forest Bathing - 8 Tips for Maxing Relaxing in Nature with PTSD
The 2021 Mental Health Awareness theme is ‘Nature’ so we’ve invited Bertie Cowen to write more about how Forest Bathing can help people with PTSD. Bertie is the editor of EffortlessOutdoors.com which aims to help more people get outdoors more easily.
“I’ve recently been reading Grimms’ fairy tales to my kids and it’s clear that folklore would have us believe the forest is a frightening place, filled with darkness and dangerous creatures. Indeed, for those who have experienced trauma the forest may be frightening for other reasons. The silence, perhaps. Or the lack of ‘busy-ness’.
But at the same time, 87% of UK adults reckon that being in nature makes them happy. And for some PTSD sufferers, nature has clearly been a lifeline for them.
Also, science has proven that a walk in the woods reduces stress and improves mental health. Specifically, a study by the University of Derby has shown that the practice of forest bathing can produce improvements in heart rate variability and reduce anxiety by 29%.
So how can victims of trauma and their loved ones harness this powerful, free remedy to maximise the benefits and mitigate risks?
Well first off, let’s define ‘forest bathing’. In lay terms it’s a blend of exercise and meditation where you intentionally set out to immerse yourself in the forest environment.
The Japanese, credited with its invention, call it shinrin-yoku. It’s more than just recreation; it’s considered to be a valuable physical and mental health therapy. So much so, that Japan has several designated shinrin-yoku forests and doctors prescribe it as a treatment to promote good mental health.
What makes it different to your typical amble in nature is the intentionality behind it. When you set out to use the forest as a tool to improve your health, it seems more likely to have a more powerful, longer-lasting impact on you than when it’s simply a pleasant side-effect of exercising outdoors.
If you are tempted to give it a go, then here’s 8 simple tips to help you get started. Please be aware that you don’t have to do it alone (in fact, there are a growing number of certified Forest Therapy guides around the world). And if you feel uncomfortable with any of the suggestions, remember they are not mandatory. You can do this any way you want to; focus and intention are probably the most important things to do in order to reap the rewards.
8 Tips for Forest Bathing
Use All Your Senses
Try to see, touch, hear and smell as much as possible. If you have any knowledge of foraging, try to bring taste into the equation (but don’t eat anything poisonous!). You may well do these things naturally anyway, but you’d be surprised how much more you will get out of it by very consciously opening yourself up to a deep sensory experience.
This is a Japanese word that doesn’t have an exact English translation, but it refers to the way the light filters through the trees and dances on the forest floor. Pay special attention to this. It’s ever changing, beautiful and helps keep you present.
Don’t just notice the wildlife. Try to observe how all the animals and insects interact with their environment; how they move, how they are comfortable with their surroundings.
The Forest Rhythm
Stop. Plant your feet firmly on the ground. Breathe slowly and deeply and let yourself feel immersed in the forest.
Speak To The Trees & The Plants
This may sound daft but if you have the courage, speaking to the trees and the plants. Telling them what you can see. Talking out loud and providing a narrative can be a wonderful way of forcing yourself to notice and vocalise details that may ordinarily pass you by.
Sit A While
Find somewhere comfortable and just sit for 20 minutes. You’d be amazed at how much things can change in 20 minutes. And if you sit in the same place every time, you will become even more connected to the seasons, too.
Feel The Forest
As you get deeper and deeper into your experience, keep breathing, keep observing… The more you do this, the more likely you are to feel a connection with the forest.
Take some time after your experience before moving back into your normal life. With no sharp jolts back to reality, you should find that the peace and tranquility stays with you for longer.
So there you have it. If you really can’t access a forest then actually any slice of nature might work for you. So don’t feel you need to make a great effort to travel or find isolated places.
Obviously, for some people with PTSD Forest Bathing won’t be right for them: 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, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 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.
Bertie is the editor of EffortlessOutdoors.com which aims to help more people get outdoors more easily.
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.