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August 05, 2016

Forest Bathing is a Thing

August 05, 2016

Confession time. A nasty bout of sadness hit me the Monday after returning from a long vacation. Post-vacation depression (PVD as I call it) is nothing new. It’s hard to return to a full inbox, the things that need to be fixed around the house or other responsibilities long forgotten about. And the longer you’re gone, the harder it is.

For me, vacation often puts one life on hold while I get a sample of a whole other life that could exist. I end up completely reimagining my existence, wondering what it would be like to work beachside, own a B&B in Ireland or be a naturalist in the Canadian wilderness. “What if I move here? How can I get paid to do this ALL the time? What if…?”

While I don’t think I’m the only one who has these thoughts, there was something about this last vacation that really made it harder to come back to the life I put on hold.

Most of my vacations are full of outdoor activities, but this one involved more hiking than others, including a 3-day backpacking trip on a remote trail.

No cell phones. No buildings. No traffic. No noise.

Free from my “normal” life’s worries, the only thing my brain had to do was think about the next step in front of me while appreciating the tranquility that surrounded me. It was a week full of serenity and a relief from the mental stimulation of our modern lives.

Prior to my trip, I had read about forest bathing in this article, which suggests its practice will one day be as appreciated and as common as yoga. And while I was intrigued, even linking to it in my out of office message that week, I don’t think I truly understood its power until after my trip was over and I started digging into more reading on the topic.

Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, was developed in the 1980’s, and is considered a method of preventative healthcare and healing in Japanese medicine. With a growing appreciation, several studies have been done that compare time spent in a natural environment to time spent doing the same activities in an urban environment or a lab. Over and over again, these studies have shown that participants in the natural environment show better results – from lower stress levels to higher blood circulation, increases in anticancer proteins, improved rest, enhanced creative problem solving, etc. Moreover, additional studies have shown increased time in urban areas resulted in decreased positive feelings and cortisol concentration, even increased anxiety.

A few specific examples:

  • This study found that a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination (repetitive, negative thoughts) and showed reduced neural activity linked to mental illness risk when compared to those who walked in an urban environment.
  • A similar study showed that a 50-minute walk in a natural environment resulted in decreased anxiety and increased working memory performance.
  • This one showed how scenes of nature enhance our vitality, thereby increasing natural energy and boosting our resilience to physical illness.
  • Beyond individual health benefits, nature can also impact our professional capabilities. Scientists have shown that four days of immersion in nature - accompanied with disconnection from multi-media and technology - can increase performance on a problem-solving task by a full 50%.

I could keep going.

Improved ADHD symptoms, faster healing times for hospital patients, fewer requests for pain meds – these are all outcomes from studies that contrast individuals who have access to or a picture of nature to those who did not.

The natural environment replenishes what urban life drains.

Some refer to this as Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which suggests that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved with nature. To let the scientists explain, “High levels of engagement with technology and multitasking place demands on executive attention to switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions. ART suggests that interactions with nature are particularly effective in replenishing depleted attentional resources. Our modern society is filled with sudden events (sirens, horns, ringing phones, alarms, television, etc.) that hijack attention. By contrast, natural environments are associated with a gentle, soft fascination, allowing the executive attentional system to replenish.”

Thinking about this and my vacation, I wondered if my sadness was the result of a jolted mind state?

Imagine going sugar free for 10 days and then consuming a meal of chocolate cake and a root beer float. Is that what I did to my brain?

For 10 days my brain was used to soaking in views of trees, lakes, glaciers and wildlife, but as the wheels of our plane touched down in Indianapolis, cell service was back and my attentional system had all cylinders firing.  

Coming back to a daily grind was a shock to my recharged system. So what do I do about it?

While one solution is to pull a Thoreau and move to the forest, a more immediate solution is to figure out how to bring more “forest bathing” into my everyday life.

A few things I’ll be trying:

  • Slowing down: most of my daily time in nature is spent running. Forest bathing is not meant to be an endurance sport. In fact, many guided walks cover only a mile for every 2 hours.
  • Reading the book, Your Brain on Nature.
  • Limiting my use of technology. I’m still working out the logistics of this one, but I’m thinking of taking 1 day a week away from technology and/or having an evening “shut-off” time.
  • More breaks during the day for walks.
  • Less multitasking – keeping fewer tabs open when I work, closing my computer when watching movies, putting away my phone when I’m outdoors, etc.
  • Finding and appreciating the nature around me, acknowledging that I can be active in the outdoors even though I don't live in Colorado or West Virginia.

During our recent Factory Week our full team tested a few forest bathing activities in Marott Park, and we'll continue experimenting with this method. Have you tried this before? Would you? 

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. - Thoreau, Walden

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