While not everything can be cured with a walk in the woods, you have to admit it feels really good to surround yourself with nature. That’s the idea behind forest bathing, a type of “free therapy” that people are starting to talk about on TikTok, where the hashtag #ForestBathing has over 17 million views.
Forest bathing, or “shinrin-yoku”, is the purposeful practice of walking in the woods to relax and de-stress. It originated in Japan in the 1980s, though the act of communing with nature has obviously been around for centuries, says Chanel Johnson, MA, LPC-S, CCTP, a licensed professional counselor.
“Forest bathing is a form of eco-therapy where you immerse yourself in a forest, or forest-type environment,” Johnson tells Bustle. Just like sun bathing, the goal is to “bathe” yourself in nature simply by being in it. On TikTok, folks often show themselves peacefully gliding through ferns, wading along rivers, or traversing fallen trees.
It really does look magical, but you don’t need to live in a picturesque environment to give forest bathing a try. A wooded backyard or city park will also do the trick, says Catherine Darley, ND, a naturopathic doctor. Go outside with the intention to “bathe” and you’ll effectively soak up some of the free therapy that nature has to offer.
The Benefits Of Forest Bathing
1. It Relieves Anxiety
Take regular walks in the woods and you may notice that you start to feel more like yourself. If you have anxiety and/or depression, that may even start to melt away, as well. In fact, “there’s a large body of evidence that shows that forest bathing decreases both anxiety and depression,” Johnson says.
It works similarly to cognitive behavioral therapy, which Johnson says looks at the body, cognitions, and feelings and the way they work together, like three lines of one triangle. “A change in any one space will affect change in another,” she says.
According to Johnson, we’re wired as humans to feel a level of comfort in natural environments. When you step outside, it literally sends a signal to the rest of your being that everything’s OK, and that you can relax. Think of it as “relaxed body, relaxed mind.”
2. It Reduces Depression
A 2016 study that compared forest bathing to walking around a city found that being in nature changed dopamine levels in the brain and resulted in higher serum adiponectic, a protein that has anti-inflammatory properties, Johnson says. As noted in the study, “Urinary dopamine after forest bathing was significantly lower than that after urban area walking, suggesting the relaxing effect of the forest bathing.”
It may also have something to do with “getting away” from your reality. As Johnson says, “Familiar scenery may already subconsciously be associated with certain stressors.” So while you won’t want to cancel your next therapy appointment, it really could help to step into nature whenever you’re jittery, anxious, or depressed.
3. It Lowers Blood Pressure
Strolling amongst the trees, or sitting quietly on a park bench, can also lower your blood pressure. The reason? “Being in a natural environment causes your fight, flight, or freeze — aka your sympathetic nervous system — to be less active,” Johnson explains.
In addition, a 2019 study noted that forest bathing reduces cortisol levels, too. “Cortisol is an alerting hormone that is elevated when we are stressed,” Darley says, which may explain why it feels so right to relax outside after a stressful day.
4. It Improves Self-Esteem
Ever notice that you feel more like yourself while out on a hike? Darley says this is due to “biophilia” or our innate love of nature. And it may explain the intangible sense that you’re fully “you” when out in the woods. According to Darley, the sense of belonging that occurs during a forest bath has been linked to improved self-esteem, so if you’re feeling bad about yourself, try stepping away and into nature.
5. It Improves Focus
If you’re distracted or unfocused, spending some time outside may help you reset and recenter, thanks to the attention restoration theory. “This is the mechanism by which attention and concentration are improved after exposure to nature,” Darley says.
As noted in a 2020 comparative study, the theory proposes that nature renews your attention and mental well-being after you exert mental energy, for instance, “after spending sleepless nights studying for exams or working tirelessly on a project or assignment.” Twirling around in a lovely, green space can also be “attentional broadening” because it stimulates all your senses.
6. It Reduces Fatigue & Burnout
For the same reason, forest bathing may relieve feelings of fatigue. As Darley notes, a walk in the woods will provide you with “a dynamic and enriched yet non-threatening experience.” In other words, as you walk down a peaceful trail or stroll toward a river, your mind will be too busy taking in all the sights and sounds to be tired or overwhelmed.
“This is what the attention restoration theory of nature exposure is about,” she says, which can be good for people who are feeling burnt out, too. To truly restore yourself, Darley recommends skipping the hike or vigorous walk and instead meandering, sitting quietly, or grounding yourself instead.
7. It Boosts Health
According to Darley, there are volatile organic compounds called terpenes in forest air, “like the pinene that creates that wonderful forest scent,” she says. “These have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, neuroprotective, and anti-cancer action.” A day trip to the woods may even increase the number and activity of your “natural killer” or NK cells for more than seven days, she says. So not only is forest bathing free therapy, it can also improve your physical well-being, too.
How To Make Try Forest Bathing
Remember, you don’t have to walk through a picturesque national park or spend an entire day outside in order to feel these effects. For maximum benefit, Johnson suggests spending at least two hours a week outdoors, but she says benefits have been seen in as little as 20 minutes.
To make the most of your trips outside, Johnson recommends staying present by engaging all of your senses. “Take deep breaths,” she says. “Take in the smells, listen to the sounds, feel the wind. Look at the colors and life happening around you. Immerse yourself as much as possible.”
It’ll also help to find a quiet place to walk or sit. Oh, and try not to look at your phone. “Enjoy the experience, relax, and put other concerns out of mind as best you can,” Darley adds. Use your time — whether it’s in a park, backyard, or beautiful forest — to reset, unwind, and bask in all that healing greenery.
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Chanel Johnson, MA, LPC-S, CCTP, licensed professional counselor
Catherine Darley, ND, naturopathic doctor with The Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine, Inc.