You’re in the middle of a forest on a beautiful day in Maine. Sunshine peeks through the leaves and scatters in fascinating, eye-catching patterns on the moss-covered ground, soft under your feet. You breathe in the scent of pine and become aware of the stillness and the small sounds of scurrying chipmunks and birdsong echoing across the land. Green leaves, brown soil, and glimpses of blue sky fill your vision for as far as you can see. Warmth from the sun spreads across your face. You can feel your whole body relax as you walk slowly through the woods, breathing and sensing each moment fully.
Immersing ourselves in nature cultivates a sense of mindfulness, a practice that is now widely known for promoting mental wellbeing. What is it about being outside that restores us so?
Many workers spend hours indoors in a busy state of focused concentration, and one of the results can be mental and physical fatigue. Fatigue and stress are risk factors for depression, as is the lack of vitamin D many of us experience during Maine’s long winters. Treatment for mild to moderate depression may include cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and other interpersonal therapies. Many also find strategies such as aerobic exercise, yoga, and the Japanese practice of forest bathing helpful, whether they are experiencing mild depressive symptoms or simply daily stressors.
In addition to sometimes leading to depression, fatigue can result in reduced attention, and forest bathing seems to provide a respite from the long hours of concentration that typical workdays require. Screentime, a modern near-requisite, can exacerbate the problem, as can urban living and spending much of our time indoors.
In psychological parlance, Stephen Kaplan’s theory of attention restoration proposes that when we use quite a bit of directed attention, or effortful attention employed to focus on a task we’re choosing to pay attention to, we need to exercise involuntary attention, which naturally occurs in nature, to restore our balance. Directed attention, in other words, such as you employ during the workday, can cause fatigue and mental exhaustion (even if you enjoy the work you are doing), and you need regular breaks to offset the effects.
Research has demonstrated that the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” has positive physiological and psychological benefits, including a reduction in blood pressure, an improved immune system, and improved mental health—and one study in particular, published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine in 2019, found the improved state of mental health especially pronounced for those with depressive tendencies. This natural remedy for mild depressive symptoms can alleviate negative emotions and moods such as anxiety, fear, anger, and disgust, and increase positive emotions such as joy.
Since a number of studies in the 1980s touting the benefits of Shinrin-yoku, Japanese doctors have included the practice, which they often describe as preventative medicine, in what is called “social prescribing.” Other social prescriptions include gardening, mountain walking, exercise and sports, swimming, caring for animals, and cooking—all activities, you may note, which engage our senses.
To practice forest bathing, we can fully immerse ourselves and our senses in a walk in the forest. Put away your phone. Slow down. Quiet your mind. Notice the details from all of your senses. It is not as simple as taking a walk outside; “immersion” is precisely the right word to truly experience all of Shinrin-yoku’s benefits. And if you don’t have access to a forest, parks can serve as a substitute space.
More research is needed to fully explore the therapeutic aspects of Shinrin-yoku, including studying whether its effects apply to those with high stress and depressive tendencies. In the meantime, forest bathing can be a stress-reducing, preventative, healthy outdoor activity for everyone to enjoy—and summer in Maine is a great time to try it out.
Sources: psychologytoday.com, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, mentalhealthtoday.co.uk