The healing power of nature is now reliably linked to positive long-term health benefits.
Evidence shows nature can ward off stress, depression and anxiety, diabetes, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cancer, heart disease…. and I could go on. And sadly, the inverse is true as well. The importance of human connection to nature cannot be overstated.
But did you know that time spent in forests specifically is substantially more healing? 🌳🌳🌳
Perhaps like me you noticed more people outside enjoying the Great British countryside during the lockdown? Some of the online wildlife groups I’ve been in for years saw huge jumps in membership, as more of us had time to appreciate the natural world, that had gone unnoticed for so long.
‘‘Nature deficit disorder’ is a disease of modern times as we spend so much time indoors and in cities, offices and connected to technology. Last year I pivoted my (indoor, office based!) career and qualified as a Forest Therapy Guide. Forest Therapy is an evidence-based therapeutic practice that connects people to natural environments through gentle sensory based ‘invitations’ (mindfulness activities).
The practice takes ‘spending time in nature’ one step further and focuses on ‘connecting to nature’. “The intent is to put people in touch with the present moment in a profoundly deep way”, says clinical psychologist Scott Bea. “The sights, sounds, smells and textures of the forest take us right into that moment, so our brains stop anticipating, recalling, ruminating and worrying”.
Forest Therapy has undoubtedly changed my life; I no longer feel a heavy sense of loneliness in my heart and anxiety does not get in the way anymore.
The practice originated in Japan in the 1980s (known as ‘Shinrin-Yoku’) but has since spread across Asia and is now becoming popular in the West. Biologist Edward Wilson wrote about a ‘biological urge to be close to nature’ in his 1984 book, “Biophilia“. Biophilia means ‘love of life’, referring to humans’ instinctive fondness for plants and animals. ‘Shinrin-Yoku’, means ‘bathing your senses in the atmosphere of the forest’, which is why it’s often called Forest Bathing, but I promise no swimming is required 🙂
Discover the top 5 benefits of Forest Therapy below.
Note: the evidence is based on spending 2 hours immersed in a Forest Therapy experience. The same results are not present if less time is spent in the forest, or if you’re taking a hike, responding to messages on your phone or chatting with friends on a dog walk.
And similar to learning piano; you have to do it regularly to see the benefits long term. Making a commitment to go on a group session is a way of committing to the practice, a bit like booking a course of yoga classes.
You could do a yoga DVD at home but do you? 🙂
Here’s a 2 minute film showing a real session of mine:
Reason 1: It’s a Stress Buster!
Forest Therapy lowers production of the stress hormone cortisol while also increasing production of the happy hormone serotonin.
Much of the time in Forest Therapy is spent in a state of deep relaxation as we move calmly and slowly through the forest inhaling deeply. This takes us out of the ‘fight or flight’ response system which is responsible for production of cortisol ready to face the danger, and into the ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic system.
Cortisol is easily measured by taking mouth swabs of participants before and after a session. The lowered levels continue for days and sometimes weeks following the session. This is significant because excess stress is the root cause of many common ailments such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes and asthma.
Earthing (also called grounding) has significant research-backed scientific benefits. Essentially, as you connect to the earth the negative ions flow into your body and the production of cortisol is slowed. Negative ions are antioxidants; they neutralize the damaging stuff we pick up from technology and pollution. They allow your body to achieve equilibrium at a cellular level.
And all you need to do is stand barefoot on soil! It might sound uninviting but to feel the earth beneath your feet is soothing. The feeling of the squidgy, almost bouncy moss beneath your feet is comforting and even if you’re standing on last year’s seed pods or leaves, it’s still a pleasant sensation.
A beneficial species of bacteria known as Mycobacterium Vaccae is found in soil and considerable evidence exists now to prove it stimulates serotonin production, which helps you relax and feel happier (thus counteracting the dreaded stress!).
During a session I invite participants to get up close and personal with the soil on which they stand. Often smelling the earth causes people to exclaim in surprise; it smells amazing! If you’d have said to me a few years ago that I’d be enjoying sniffing the earth, I’d have cracked up. But, turns out I do 🙂 (isn’t it great to always be learning). The smell of damp topsoil from the forest (the humus layer) is superb in wet weather.
My challenge to you – grab a hand full of damp earth or mossy moss next time you’re in the woods – and give it a great big whiff!
Reason 2: Phytoncides boost your immunity!
This is thanks to antimicrobial essential oils emitted from plants and trees called ‘phytoncides’.
Phytoncides are produced to help plants & trees protect themselves from attack and they are proven to cause an increase in the count of, and activity in, the cells in our bodies that seek out and defeat cancer and bacterial infections. These cells are known as natural killer (NK) cells.
The increase in NK activity has been shown in various studies to last for weeks after the session and these same essential oils deliver a host of other benefits including lowered heart rate and blood pressure.
Reason 3: Reduce your anxiety levels
I carried out a recognised mood test (POMS – Profile of Mood States) with the participants in my early sessions. The most notable change in mood was a reduction in anxiety. And given that it’s also the most prevalent condition in my customers, I’m pretty excited about this.
As a highly sensitive and anxious person myself, it’s been an effective preventative medicine for me. Although I can still get anxious, the more I immerse myself in nature, the less ‘loud’ my anxiety is when it comes. I can definitely feel when I haven’t spent some time ‘just being’ in the woods for a couple of weeks.
Reason 4: Enhanced emotional wellbeing
Who doesn’t want to FEEL BETTER?
During a Forest Therapy experience, I guide you through a series of meditations designed to deepen your connection with nature. But what I do mean by that? I describe nature connection as a compassionate relationship between humans and the rest of natural world. See more about nature connection in an earlier blog. As our connection to nature deepens, it’s proven that we can become more emotionally resilient, and that we feel:
- a sense that life is worthwhile
- an increased ability to feel trust, empathy and kindness towards others (i.e. a reduction in hostility)
- less confused
For me it’s also a sense of belonging to ‘something bigger’ and it gives me perspective on life’s ups and downs.
Reason 5: Give those energy levels a boost
Forest Therapy can give us back our energy and vitality, refresh and rejuvenate us. You might find this one hard to understand since I’ve mentioned slowing down, restoring inner calm and reaching a state of peaceful relaxation so often, but it’s true. Various studies show the practice leaves people feeling rejuvenated, and again the results from my early tests corroborate these findings.
Want to know more?
I’ve listed 5 reasons here, but there are so many more. Visit the benefits page on my website to continue learning.
If you want to be one of the first to try this innovative yet proven wellbeing practice here in the UK, get in touch, I would love to help you awaken your senses. Imagine if Forest Therapy changes your life, as it has mine?
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With blessings from the forest,