Apr 20, 2020
EDITION 3 | 3:30 read time
Go to a Forest. Walk slowly. Breathe. Open all your senses. This is the healing way of Shinrin-yoku Forest Therapy, the medicine of simply being in the forest. In Japan, forest bathing—known as shinrin-yoku—and is very popular. It’s based on the idea that if a person visits a natural area and simply walks in a relaxed way, they will achieve calming, rejuvenating, and restorative benefits.
In 1982, the Forest Agency of the Japanese government came up with a shinrin-yoku plan to encourage the populace to get out into nature for mental and physical exercise and stress reduction. In 2006, an organization began to give forests across the country the official designations of Forest Therapy Base or Forest Therapy Road. Visitors can take part in guided walks with experts in forest medicine or enroll in classes such as dietary management and hydrotherapy and receive medical checkups.
Korea is now on a path to out-Japanese the Japanese in forest therapy trails and science. There, forest bathing is called Salim yok. Although Jangseong is currently one of only three official healing forests in South Korea, thirty-four more are slated to appear in the next two years, meaning most major towns will have access to one. This forest, with its dominant cypress trees, is considered a jewel in the system.
In Finland, the recommended nature dose is five hours a month, minimum. For the Finnish, though, nature is about expressing a close-knit collective identity. Nature is where they can exult in their nationalistic obsessions of berry-picking, mushrooming, fishing, lake swimming and Nordic skiing.
According to large surveys, the average Finn engages in nature-based recreation two to three times per week. 58% of Finns go berry-picking, 35% cross-country ski, often in Arctic darkness, under lights in large city parks. Seventy percent hike regularly, compared to the European and American average of about 30 percent. Fifty percent of Finns ride bikes, 20 percent jog and 30 percent walk a dog, and I particularly like this one: 5 percent of the population, or 250,000 people, partake in long-distance ice-skating. All told, over 95 percent of Finns regularly spend time recreating in the outdoors.
In Europe, 60 percent of job-related health problems are, like bad backs, musculoskeletal. But the next-highest category (14 %) is psychological: stress, depression and anxiety. The Finnish call it “burnout syndrome,” and it significantly taxes both employers and government health agencies.
Reconnect with Nature
It’s not practical to grab your backpack and tent every time you feel stressed; rush-hour traffic is driving you crazy or you’re annoyed with your co-workers. Here are a few ideas to reconnect with nature:
- Practicing shinrin-yoku (the Japanese concept of “forest air bathing,” or walking while taking in the forest environment with all senses). Multiple scientific studies have been published on shinrin-yoku in the last several years. These studies make it clear that even urban forests and parks can have the effect of a mental tonic.
- Keeping plants in your office, which might help with your attentiveness.
- Employing essential oils derived from nature, which can help you stay alert, or settle down for a rejuvenating rest.
- Exercising outdoors, which has been proven to be more beneficial for the body and mind.
- Owning a pet (most notably a dog or cat). The connections between pet ownership and physical and mental health are evident: pets can lower our stress hormones and improve other measurements of stress physiology.
- Grounding the mind with gardening and away-from-it-all excursions. Horticulture and wilderness therapies can be effective interventions for mental health issues. Do volunteer word at a local school garden, they are always looking for help.
- Following a Mediterranean diet and whole-food nutrition, which will return you to the foods on which humans evolved to thrive.