Stress Less in the Woods
Hello Dear Readers! I am very aware of sore muscles today as I climbed a mountain over the weekend with my family. It was beautiful and challenging, and I was impressed by how beneficial it was for me mentally.
I had started the hike in a terrible mood. I was tired from a late night before, and already stiff from moving furniture and raking. Needless to say, I wasn’t great company what with all of my moaning and groaning about my achy back, etc. The hike took about four hours and, although my body was screaming the entire time, about an hour in, I noticed that my mood had shifted to the positive side of the pendulum.
Why, you might wonder? Wouldn’t I have been happier at home with my feet up reading a good book? I’ll give you a hint: it has to do with molecules of dirt and the brain’s reaction to them. Yes, you read that right. Breathing in “dirty” air helps to lift your mood.
You may have seen something in the news recently about a hot trend in stress relief: Forest Bathing. “Shinrin-yoku” is a [Japanese] term that means "taking in the forest atmosphere" or "forest bathing." It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.”(www.shinrin-yoku.org)
This might sound a bit fluffy, but there is real science behind the concept that Nature is good for humans. If you stop and think for a moment, it makes perfect sense that our bodies would appreciate being outdoors. Our ancestors were farmers and most communities were rural. It was not uncommon for families to have a garden, and even the suburbs had more greenery once upon a time.
Nowadays we spend most of our time indoors. In fact, according to a study conducted by the EPA, we spend 90% of our time inside and another 3% of our time in cars! (www.epa.gov) We sit in front of screens at the office only to go home and have a different version of that in our pajamas watching Netflix. Don’t get me wrong, Dear Reader, I love my screen time. This isn’t a shame column about binge watching. What I aim to do is highlight the benefit of spending time in the great outdoors (especially here in New Hampshire!) and how that can add to your life in a positive way.
According to the foremost expert on Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), Dr. Qing Li, in his book: Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness (Viking, 2018.), people who spend time in Nature experience lower levels of cortisol (the stress-inducing hormone), higher levels of white blood cells (boosted immune system function), lower blood pressure, reduced stress, anxiety and depression, and higher activity from the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of our nervous system that promotes relaxation). Basically, people who spend time in Nature just plain old feel better.
So, how does Forest Bathing work? Here’s a starter kit:
Find a green area where you can walk, sit, stand or lie down for a designated period of time, without your phone or camera. This should feel like a safe space. Somewhere you know well or even your own backyard if you have some trees is just fine.
Follow your senses. Take in the colors of the trees; hear the wind blowing the leaves; the bubbling of the stream; follow the scent of the flowers or the decay of the forest floor. Allow yourself to get lost in the environment (not literally, of course!). Touch the trunk of a tree, feel the softness of a blade of grass through your fingers, smell pine needles on the branch of a tree. You get the idea.
Cultivate childlike wonder: Remember when you were a kid and everything seemed so new? Try to experience the woods like that now. Let go of definitions and species of trees and allow yourself to experience them as if you’re seeing them for the first time.
Breathe mindfully and slowly: Allow yourself to breathe deeply and savor the freshness of the air. This will also help to lower your heart rate and relax you as you “bathe”.
Be silent: If you happen to be spending time with a special someone while in the forest, maintain a quiet atmosphere so you can both enjoy the experience without talking over the trees’ conversation.
Well, there you have it! A breadcrumb trail into the woods! I hope you get out there and breathe in some wonderful mountain air, Dear Reader! It’s good for you!