You ever thought that what you really need is some time in the forest? Its not all about just hugging trees, it seems returning to our original habitat has countless benefits for us mind-body-spirit.
Shinrin Yoku or “forest bathing” is a Japanese term that was coined in the 1980’s and has become a cornerstone in Japanese medicine and wellbeing. Ecotherapy has also become a thing in Britain and covers a range of activities from therapy sessions in the forest, to horticulture to nature arts and crafts. Forest schools are even becoming a thing, and in Scandinavia some schools teach in nature so that students get the optimum amount out of their lessons. Though nature based therapies span many different options, a walk in the forest is a good place to start.
So what are the benefits?
A study from the University of Essex in 2007 showed that 90% of people studied who were suffering felt a higher level of self-esteem after a walk through a country park and another survey found that 94% of people with a mental illness believed that having contact with nature put them in a more positive mood.
More research shows that horticulture therapy caused significant improvements in life satisfaction, lower levels of loneliness in community schemes (which as we know is crucial for wellbeing! Link article), and lessened feelings of powerlessness. Horticulture therapy simply means being intentionally involved with nature. The Eden project even did a pilot study that showed that over 12 weeks 94% of participants showed an increase in wellbeing which resulted in a 40% drop in associated visits to GP’s surgeries.
But is there any science behind it?
Absolutely. Biological analysis shows that a walk in the forest increases the levels of natural killer cells and lymphocytes in the body, which are both vital parts of the immune system. In fact one study showed that the increased levels of natural killer cells in men lasted for seven days after the walk in the forest. Also spending time in nature has effects on the brain.
The brain basically works by firing electricity through neurons, and in doing this it gives off different size brainwaves (alpha, beta, delta, thelta). When we are stressed we give off beta waves, though it is more and more common now that because of overstimulation in the city and chronic stress that people endure beta waves are given off most of the time (hence why it can be so hard to sleep sometimes). Alpha waves are given off when we are relaxed, when we are meditating and when we are in the creative zone. Spending time in nature has shown that it causes a switch from people giving off beta waves to alpha waves. This in turn causes a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and stimulates the digestive system. Put simply you switch from using the sympathetic nervous system (stress) to parasympathetic nervous system (relax).
Forest bathing has also been shown to reduce the levels of the hormone cortisol in the body. And one more nice treat is that breathing in the phytochemical terpenes from the trees boosts our immune system and is anti-inflammatory.
Many people have speculated as to why nature has this effect on people, and biologist E.O. Wilson hypothesised the evolutionary belief that “human survival and ability to thrive and gain fulfillment depend on one’s relationship with nature”.
The “psycho-evolutionary theory” suggests that when in nature or nature-related environments humans react with positive emotional and physiological responses as humans have adapted positively to nature for survival. Whatever the theory, I don’t think you need science to prove that nature is a special place. Maybe next time instead of booking in an expensive class to relax, you should take yourself to the forest to unwind.