Forest Therapy: A Green Prescription for Mental Health
Updated: Jul 26, 2022
Forest Therapy began in Japan in the 1980s as a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku, which translates to "forest bathing" or "taking in the forest atmosphere." Harvard Health Publishing explains, "leaders in Japan noticed a spike in stress-related illnesses, attributed to people spending more time working in technology and other industrial work. Certified trails were created to guide people in outdoor experiences. Decades of research show that forest bathing may help reduce stress, improve attention, boost immunity, and lift mood.” The Japanese quickly embraced this form of ecotherapy. Since then, an increasing amount of research has highlighted the many benefits of nature for physical, mental, and social wellbeing.
Forest Therapy combines our western mental health practices with shinrin-yoku. It is a sensory-oriented practice designed to increase mindfulness skills, but the research shows it does much more.
In fact, In December 2020, Canada launched a new national nature prescription program. Through this program, licensed healthcare professionals can sign up for PaRx.org to receive instructions and resources for providing green prescriptions. This initiative, coordinated by the BC Parks Foundation, aims to provide up to 10,000 healthcare workers with free, guided "forest bathing" sessions in partnership with the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides (ANFT).
Forest Therapy is now recognized as a valid intervention to promote health and wellbeing.
What the research says about the benefits of Forest Therapy
A 2017 study looked at the ‘Effect of Forest Therapy on Depression and Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.' This study found that Forest Therapy can provide preventive management and non-pharmacologic treatment to improve depression and anxiety.
Another 2017 study found that nature and health are correlated, specifically attention, positive feelings, physical health, social integration, and community building.
The National Library of Medicine published an article on the Influence of Forest Therapy on cardiovascular relaxation in young adults. Forest Therapy can significantly increase parasympathetic nervous activity, which can help with relaxation.
Other studies also show that even just being in nature can positively affect immunity, boost attention and focus, have a better quality of sleep, and improve overall health and wellbeing.
How to Do Forest Therapy
If you're interested in discovering Forest Therapy, there's no need to go to Japan. There are many Forest Therapy Guides in North America. Spending even 20 minutes interacting with nature can help you tap into long-lasting benefits for both body and mind.
Tip #1: Find a Guide
A guide is an essential part of the Forest Therapy process. Sometimes it can be hard to tune into your senses and practice mindfulness on your own; a guide can help you on your journey. They also already know the best spots and trails, so you do not have to go out looking. They can help organize group walks, allowing you to reflect and share your experiences with others and create a sense of community and connection with the people around you.
If you have any questions about the process or want to learn more about the practice, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Daniel Klco is a certified Forest Therapy Guide and a licensed psychotherapist at Nomina Wellness and Nomina Integrated Health in Winnipeg.
Tip #2: The Perfect Place
If you choose not to find a guide, or there may not be one in your area, you can still have a forest bathing experience. The first step is to find a place to go. Forest Therapy can be done in any natural environment; a wooded area, a grassy field, a mountain, or a beach. Ideally, one that has a diversity of sounds, sights, and smells. This could mean choosing a place with lots of trees, a vast meadow with a stream running through, for example. You want a multitude of ways for the environment to interact with your five senses. Natural waterways are also ideal.
It is beneficial that your perfect place has a minimal number of human intrusions. Sometimes that isn't possible; you can still have a great forest bathing experience with others around, like in a city park. Ideally, you want somewhere where the soundscape is as close to 100% natural sounds as possible. Having places to stop and sit is an integral part of the experience, so find a location with areas where you can rest in solitude with nature.
To start, you should probably pick a place close to your home, which makes it easier to return as often as you'd like.
Tip #3: Follow These Guidelines:
1. Don't view it as an activity.
The forest is not just the setting for this activity but a tool or a partner helping you on your journey. Work with the nature around you to get the most out of your experience there. Think of it as an experience.
2. Do not overthink it
Focus on your senses and feelings. Keep your expectations at bay, and do not force those expectations into existence. There is nothing to be achieved per se. Allow yourself to feel what you are feeling and experience what you experience.
3. It is not about the distance
A walk should ideally be 2-4 hours, which is just enough time for your body to relax and slow down. This time commitment doesn't mean you have to walk far, half a mile or less. You can take it slow and wander or stop and go as you wish. In fact, walking less can help you focus on your surroundings rather than getting somewhere specific or achieving a step/distance goal.
4. This is not a workout
Forest therapy is not a physically demanding activity. It is not a hike or a climb but a space for you to play in meditative feelings. If you feel like you are working out, pause for a moment, breath, and try to achieve inner stillness.
5. Do not bring technology
Leave behind any distractions such as cameras, phones, or anything that can potentially pull you out of the present moment. Practice your ability to unplug and enjoy the nature around you.
6. Do not try to create experiences
A part of being mindful is bringing yourself to the present. Reading the studies or hearing the experiences of others can influence your expectations of the process. Try and leave those goals and expectations behind. Everyone's experience is different. Let yourself be open to any feelings, emotions, and experiences you may encounter along the way.
7. Move slowly
Allow yourself to notice the environment around you instead of rushing right past it. Nature is rarely entirely still, so match your inner motion to the motion surrounding you. Connect with the environment around you rather than passing it by.
8. Sit Spot
Find a place to sit for 15-20 minutes. Sitting will give you time to notice the things around you. Cultivate awareness of yourself and your surroundings. Try your best to stay still and find inner stillness. You may find the behaviour of the birds or other little creatures of the forest will interact with you differently.
Tip #4: Tune In
To experience forest therapy fully, you can't just show up in a natural setting. You must be able to tune in to the environment, your body, and your senses.
Learn how to notice the environment around you and deepen your awareness of where you are. Pause and notice a leaf blowing in the wind. Walk closer and inspect it if you wish. Speak out loud what you are seeing and what you are feeling. Do what you can to increase the connection between you and the place you are in.
Tune in to your body and your movements. Feel how you are standing or walking and how you interact with the nature around you. Notice the path beneath your feet and the muscles, tendons, and bones that allow you to walk on it.
And lastly, engage with your five senses. Allow them to connect with the natural setting. Focus on each individual sense: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Closing your eyes may help you focus on the senses, like sounds and smells, that you may not have noticed before. When you breathe in, do you taste anything? Blend the sound of your breath with the sounds of the forest. This will help you reduce the separation between you and nature.
The practice of forest bathing has a host of scientifically supported benefits. If you are struggling with your mental health, try a 'green prescription.' Call a registered Forest Therapy Guide near you who will assist you in following the Forest Therapy Standard Flow Model. They will instruct you to focus on pleasurable experiences as you relax into your body with a deep connection with the forest environment.