We experienced utter powerlessness on a global scale during the lockdown. But sharing it with others gave us a sense of relief. On a personal level though, feeling powerless is much more real. It’s ugly and it’s lonely. Having no control over the realities of your life, whatever they are, makes you feel vulnerable, helpless, and incompetent.
For some, powerlessness is the inability to cope with a loss. For others, it’s not knowing what the future holds. For me, it’s been increasingly about reopening on top of, well, everything. The conversation around reopening has given me such anxiety that I felt the need to do something about it. And I found something that worked so well that I don’t mind driving almost an hour to get it: forest bathing. I believe it’s going to help you manage your anxiety too.
What is forest bathing?
Forest bathing is simply a visit to a forest (1). It’s the direct translation of the Japanese word “shinrin-yoku”. And it simply means being around trees and immersing yourself in nature.
Forest bathing as a practice was originated in Japan and has been increasingly popular especially in recent years. Why? Because it’s the easiest, cheapest, and most effective cure for today’s most common issue: anxiety.
One name, in particular, has been associated with the practice all thanks to his research on the benefits of forests on human health and psychology. Qing Li, MD, Ph.D., is a physician and immunologist, and a forest medicine expert. He literally wrote the book(s) on forest bathing, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness.
What are the benefits?
There is some real science proving the benefits of forest bathing. According to Li, who studied forest bathing for over 30 years, the positive effects can be boiled down to phytoncides (2).
Phytoncides are chemicals that plants release to protect themselves from bacteria and the like. When we’re exposed to a forest environment, we breathe in these chemicals. And they activate certain cells in our system called natural killer cells. These cells kill tumors and virus-infected cells in the body.
According to Li, forest bathing reduces blood pressure and blood sugar. It reduces stress hormones and helps with anxiety and depression. It also increases sleep quality, boosts your immune system, improves memory and concentration (3).
What’s more impressive is that the positive effects of forest bathing last for at least 7 days after your trip. These are effects that can be measured by urine and blood samples, which you won’t be able to do. What you can measure is the way you feel after you leave the forest.
Everyone’s journey is unique. Being around trees and plants is a subjective experience. It ignites a sense of wonder and awe for some people. For others, physically being in a different, open environment is simply therapeutic.
Being surrounded by trees, seeing soil when looking down, seeing the sky when looking up, sharing the air with the plants around you is when you realize what you’re made of.
It’s when you’re humbled by that inexplicable bond you have with nature. It’s like paying a quick visit to your mom and letting her remind you that you’ve got this.
Ricky from the movie American Beauty best describes it as: “It’s like God is looking right at you, just for a second, and if you’re careful, you can look right back”.
Where to forest bathe?
You don’t need to actually go to a forest to forest bathe. Even though that would be ideal, it’s not easy to practice it when you’re living in the city.
Li suggests visiting local parks. And if that’s not going to work, he recommends surrounding your home with plants (4).
How to forest bathe?
The idea is being exposed to greenery. But mindfulness and purposefulness are two of the most important aspects. Breathing in chemicals is one thing. But what makes this practice so therapeutic is its meditational vibe.
If you remember your first time meditating, then you know it can get awkward. You don’t know what to think, how to sit or stand, or what to say. So I reached out to my own therapist Sevde Sarisahin, a fellow forest bather, and asked her what to do to get the most out of forest bathing.
“Try grounding. Walk barefoot in the forest to reconnect with the earth. If you can find a spot you feel comfortable, sit in a relaxed position for a 10-minute meditation”.
This can get tricky. For me, the worst part of forest bathing is the presence of other forest bathers. The mere sight of other people just ruins it for me. That’s why I go forest bathing early in the morning, around 6 AM, when there are relatively fewer people around.
For a sit-down meditation, Sevde suggests sitting with the purpose of releasing unnecessary energy. Not negative energy but unnecessary energy.
“Your words have immense power over your mind. It’s important to choose them wisely. Simply using the word “negative” instantly changes the vibes. Try taking that word out of your life altogether. Position your body in a way that it’s open to the environment. Relax your hands, fingers, and avoid crossing your legs. It’s best to keep your phone on the side and not on you. Close your eyes if you want to and start your meditation with this affirmation:
‘With much love and respect, I’m releasing the unnecessary and waste energy I have in my body and my etheric body to the soil. May it be for the benefit of the soil, the universe, and me’. Sit quietly and focus on your breathing. And try to visualize a connection, a flow between you and the soil cleansing your energy. After 10 minutes, put your hands together and say ‘I’m accepting pure energy of life back from the soil’ and complete your meditation.”
These affirmations give context and act as the beginning and the ending of your meditation. They reinforce the give-and-take between you and the soil. You get rid of the waste and replace it with something pure.
Grounding may not be easy for first-timers, especially for city-dwellers who aren’t used to being that exposed in the wild. For that, here’s what she recommends: “Try touching an old tree with your both hands. It’s another way of grounding or earthing.”
How does it help with anxiety?
Even though the benefits of forest bathing do include reducing anxiety, I can only speak for my experience.
I prefer going to the forest for the truest form of forest therapy. I designate a day for it as the forest is a long drive from my house. I leave around 6 AM.
And I walk 6000m when I’m in the forest simply looking around, breathing in the air, and appreciating the beauty. I try different spots to do my meditation.
And I can’t tell you how excited I feel, yes excited! The excitement that good things are around the corner. And I go back to the forest to bathe in that feeling and just charge up.
Going back to the movie American Beauty, Ricky describes it as: “That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things. And this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid, ever”.
- Li, Q. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environ Health Prev Med 15, 9–17 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3
- Li, Q., Kobayashi, M., Inagaki, H., Hirata, Y., Li, Y. J., Hirata, K., Shimizu, T., Suzuki, H., Katsumata, M., Wakayama, Y., Kawada, T., Ohira, T., Matsui, N., & Kagawa, T. (2010). A day trip to a forest park increases human natural killer activity and the expression of anti-cancer proteins in male subjects. Journal of biological regulators and homeostatic agents, 24(2), 157–165.
- Penguin Books UK. (2018, April 24). The Art and Science of Forest Bathing with Dr Qing Li [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12CCjoixpkA
- Martin, K. (2020, July 2). The Science—and Magic—of Forest Bathing. Goop. https://goop.com/wellness/spirituality/the-science-and-magic-of-forest-bathing/