Forest bathing for stress? Maybe you’ve tried typical stress relievers like yoga, meditation, or even unexpected hacks like snacking on mango or staring at a pattern. But did you ever think about just hanging out in the woods?
The Japanese concept of shrinrin-yoku translates to “forest bathing.” It’s a cool, pretty name for an activity that basically involves zoning out among some trees. The thinking goes that spending time in a green, leafy setting filled with clean, fresh air helps you feel calmer and more relaxed.
And believe it or not, it really works. Here’s a look at how shinrin-yoku, quite literally, helps change your body’s response to stress—and how to give the practice a try.
The science behind forest bathing
Shinrin-yoku is more than just a way to chill out. A growing number of studies show that exposure to natural settings—including forest bathing—actually yield measurable, positive effects on your body.
In a recent field experiment, Japanese researchers studied the physiological effects of spending time in forests versus in urban environments. What they found was nothing short of mind-blowing. Compared to city dwellers, study subjects who hung out in the woods experienced:
- A 55% increase in parasympathetic nervous system activity, or activity in the nervous system that promotes rest and relaxation.
- A 7% decrease in sympathetic nervous system activity, or activity in the nervous system that activates your fight-or-flight response.
- A 12% drop in levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
- A nearly 6% decrease in heart rate.
- A significant increase in immune system function—that lasted up to a month after returning to a city setting.
The findings on shinrin-yoku’s stress-reducing effects prove quite impressive. Some researchers suggest using forest bathing as a form of preventative medicine, akin to eating a clean diet and taking steps to get enough sleep. In addition to its potential for fighting anxiety and depression, forest bathing’s immune-boosting effects might even play a role in staving off chronic diseases like cancer.
In addition to its potential for fighting anxiety and depression, forest bathing’s immune-boosting effects might even play a role in staving off chronic diseases like cancer.
Of course, further studies are needed to learn more about forest bathing’s beneficial health effects—especially when it comes to serious illnesses. But if you’re feeling tense, anxious, or overwhelmed, chances are, shinrin-yoku will only leave you feeling calmer and more relaxed.
How to get started
Like other activities designed to promote relaxation, practicing forest bathing isn’t complicated. All you have to do is head out into a natural setting and allow your senses to soak up the sights, sounds, scents, textures, and feelings of the forest.
You can sit quietly, if you’d like, or you can walk. But keep in mind: Shinrin-yoku isn’t the same thing as hiking. Your goal, first and foremost, is to immerse yourself in nature. Getting some exercise is a nice side benefit, but it’s not really why you’re there. So don’t push it too hard.
Take the nature in
Instead, feel free to stroll slowly. Pause to take in a beautiful sight, whether it’s an awe-inspiring viewpoint, a bird hopping, the sunlight filtering through the leaves, or a young plant sprouting through the forest floor. (This free starter kit, from the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy, has other cool ideas for relaxing, forest-centered activities.)
Not surprisingly, you want to avoid interruptions that could potentially leave you feeling more stressed. Above all, that means not pulling out your phone every time you get a ping. Leaving it home altogether is probably best, since research shows that having a phone nearby can distract you even when you aren’t actually looking at it. But if you want to have it with you, keep it off, and in your backpack or bag not your pocket.
And if you have a hard time zoning out at first? That’s pretty normal. When you’re in the middle of a crazy stressful situation, turning off your thoughts like a switch isn’t always easy.
So be patient with yourself. Is your mind racing when you first head outside? Don’t stress, chances are you’ll start to feel calmer and cooler after just a few minutes. Think about making shinrin-yoku a regular part of your routine, too. (Sunday morning forest baths sound pretty nice, right?) The more often you practice allowing yourself to zone out in nature and engage in forest bathing, the better at it you’ll be.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.