Sonya Dibbin is a Forest Therapy Guide and Mindfulness Guide providing effective team building in Covid times: Forest Bathing and Meditation for Mindfulness. She launched Adore Your Outdoors after a career as an IT Manager, leaving the corporate world behind to help others step outside, connect with nature and discover healthier happier lives. Sonya is also trained in Mental Health First Aid, Therapeutic Counselling, and Children and Young People’s Mental Health.
What is Forest Bathing?
Forest Bathing is an outdoor mindfulness and meditation experience. It originated as Shinrin-Yoku (‘bathing your senses in the atmosphere of the forest’) in Japan, 40 years ago. Extensive research by the Japanese government has found that it can result in positive physiological and mental health benefits, potentially lasting for several weeks[i]. Today, Forest Bathing is a mainstream activity in Japan, well regarded across Asia and growing in popularity globally.
What does your Forest Bathing service look like in the workplace
Each Forest Bathing experience lasts approximately 3-4 hours and is delivered for small groups of up to 15 employees in local woodland.
I work with teams in small-medium organisations whose staff are able to travel to woodland locations across Hampshire and Berkshire. Where they have access to woodland we can use, I can travel to them.
I meet the participants in an agreed parking area, lead them into the woods and introduce the practice. Each session includes 3-6 guided mindfulness activities – individual, pair and group; chosen to suit the location, weather, participants and so forth – starting with a 30-minute sensory activation meditation. Each is designed to immerse the individual in the abundant therapeutic benefits of the serene, vital woodland environment.
Forest Bathing is non-contact so it’s good for those organisations who are keen to minimise risk but still run effective team building in Covid times. After each exercise, we reconvene for facilitated group sharing and reflection. The session concludes with an optional foraged tea ceremony or group land-art creation, after which we walk back to the parking area.
It’s not your average forest walk – it’s very slow and restorative; much of the time is spent barely moving and in silence, engaging the senses in intentional exercises while worries take a back seat.
How about virtual team building?
Yes! For groups unable to visit woodland in person together, I deliver 90-minute Forest Bathing experiences via Zoom. Participants join from their local woodland or garden and it’s proved surprisingly effective.
How does your service benefit people in the workplace?
A wide range of physical and psychological benefits have been closely associated with Forest Bathing for many years, including:
Phytoncides are antimicrobial essential oils emitted by plants and trees (and in particular conifers and oaks) to protect themselves. Breathing them in is proven to stimulate the cells in our bodies that defend us against cancer and bacterial infections – an effect that can last for several weeks after Forest Bathing. Phytoncides also deliver a host of other benefits, including lowered cortisol, heart rate and blood pressure[iv].
The state of deep relaxation entered in Forest Bathing takes us out of the ‘fight or flight’ response system, responsible for producing cortisol, the stress hormone. We also connect with the earth beneath our feet, enabling antioxidants to enter our bodies and slow cortisol production whilst stimulating the production of the happy hormone, serotonin.
Increasing emotional resilience
Forest Bathing deepens our connection with nature and awakens our gratitude for the everyday positives all around us. It’s easy to fall into negative ‘mind traps’ but rediscovering all that we have to be grateful for can put life into better perspective and free our minds from these pitfalls. Forest Bathing also provides a safe space and a process that can help people to work through and release any blocked emotions which may be holding them back.
Participants leave feeling relaxed, refreshed, rejuvenated and raring to go. Together, they will have experienced something new and learnt techniques that they can use anytime to help them manage difficult situations. As with other wellbeing therapies, maximum benefits are gained from regular practice.
Several decades of formal Japanese research supports the physical and mental health benefits of Forest Bathing and immersive experiences in nature[vii].
Is there any scientific evidence from the UK on Forest Bathing?
Yes, studies outside Japan have been slow to emerge, but there are now some exciting examples much closer to home. For example:
- The Forest Bathing Institute in Surrey were involved in producing the first UK paper into the beneficial effects of Forest Bathing, published in 2021[viii]. The results demonstrate improvements across a range of wellbeing measures[ix]. In response, Guildford Borough Council have prescribed Forest Bathing as a ‘green prescription’ and Surrey NHS are about to do the same.
- Also in 2021, Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby, published a study into the impact of nature-related factors on wellbeing, including many associated with Forest Bathing[x]. Nature connectedness and engaging with nature through simple activities consistently emerged as significant and prominent factors in mental health and wellbeing (as opposed to time spent in nature).
What insight can you share from delivering this type of team building in Covid times?
There is mounting interest in how nature can benefit health and wellbeing. I’m also seeing a shift away from conventional reliance on mental health awareness training and employee assistance programmes, There is a move towards more tangible and personally resonant interventions that come with meaningful takeaways employees can integrate into their working lives. By providing virtual or in-person Forest Bathing as a type of outdoor team building in Covid times, the employer is demonstrating they value their staff as well as bringing organisational benefits such as team cohesion and increased productivity.
The impact of remote working on teams
Those who choose to work with me often arrive frazzled and wrung out – recognising that something has to change but not really knowing what, or how to fix it. Because of Covid, they may not have seen each other in person for months – maybe even a year or more. In some cases, they may never have met. All of this can create quite a charged group atmosphere and makes team building or team bonding even more valuable right now. The group usually settles within the first hour or so – that’s why it’s important to allow 3-4 hours for a session.
How Forest Bathing strengthens relationships
As the group progresses through the Forest Bathing experience, everyone becomes more relaxed and less guarded. They begin to have fun with it, willingly participating in sharing exercises. They see another side of their colleagues and connect on a deeper level. By the time we conclude the session, there is a strong sense of relaxed connection and togetherness.
I feel hugely privileged to be able to facilitate this transition from cluttered and closed to clear and open. It’s an unforgettable, unique, shared experience that cultivates team cohesion in these times of remote working.
Is one Forest Bathing session enough?
Employers should do more to encourage their people to spend time mindfully outside – especially those who would otherwise spend all day indoors. I recommend dedicated outdoor team building in Covid times, of course, and some companies are now using their green space to create a community wildflower garden, feed the wildlife, grow your own etc, but even short mindful walks or simple nature connection activities such as listening to the birds or cloud-watching in the garden every day can work wonders. Teams should aim to spend time outdoors together at least once a week.
A tremendous example of an employer – and community-focused public service provider – recognising and seeking to take full advantage of the extensive healing power of therapeutic green spaces is the NHS Forest project. NHS Forest has a number of admirable environmental and social value objectives, but the project’s principal focus is improving the health and wellbeing of patients, staff and communities by increasing access to green space on or near National Health Service land[xi].
What drives you to make a difference by using Forest Bathing for team building?
Modern life is frenetic and disconnected. Opportunities for peace, stillness and connection are extremely rare. We owe it to ourselves to make them happen.
A few years ago, I made a choice to spend more time outdoors, surrounded by nature. Gradually, I began to notice the natural world around me in a different way. It was a very gentle lightbulb moment – the development of my deep nature connection. Since then I have felt a fundamental shift in who I am and how I see myself and the world around me.
Nature plays a key, healing role in our health and wellbeing. We are a part of nature, not apart from it; and, unlike medical and mental health practitioners, there are no costs or waiting lists for connecting with nature mindfully outdoors.
Many studies from around the world have proven that deepening individual connection with nature can boost wellbeing, increase feelings of belonging, provide a sense of purpose, help to reduce anxiety, and promote calm. I have often witnessed the profound effect that Forest Bathing can have for some people, especially those suffering from blocked emotions or the dreaded overwhelm.
I am also passionate about promoting eco-friendly behaviour and helping others to recognise that the more we protect mother nature, the more she protects and nourishes us.
Article based on feature written by Emma Blackwell from Equilibria Massage.
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[ii] See reference i.
[v] ‘Effects of Forest Bathing (Shinrin-Yoku) on levels of cortisol as a stress biomarker: a systematic review and meta-analysis’ https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00484-019-01717-x
[viii] ‘UK’s first published research paper into health benefits of forest bathing’, https://tfb.institute/press-release-uks-first-published-research-paper-into-health-benefits-of-forest-bathing
[x] ‘Moments, not minutes: The nature-wellbeing relationship’, www.internationaljournalofwellbeing.org/index.php/ijow/article/view/1267