Forest Therapy – A Natural Antidepressant


Forest Park Bench
An inviting bench in Forest Park

I was thinking of activities that can work as a natural antidepressant when an NPR Morning Edition story caught my ear: “Forest Bathing: A Retreat to Nature Can Boost Immunity and Mood” by Allison Aubrey. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term Shinrin-yoku in the early 1990s, and evidence of its benefits to physical and mental health has been accumulating ever since.

The Shinrin-yoku organization website lists studies that suggest “forest bathing” can improve mood and lead to an overall increase of happiness. Another measurable benefit is stress relief.

This doesn’t surprise me. On my daily walk, whenever I’m not running an errand, I try to access one of my neighborhood parks to walk beneath a canopy of mature trees. My stress level automatically decreases when I’m in a park because I don’t have to worry about checking for vehicles every time I cross a street. If I stay on the wood chip path for runners and walkers, I cyclists won’t hit me either. Two of the parks I visit most often have off-leash dog areas, and the enthusiasm of dogs at play can be infectious. That’s always a mood booster. The scent, the essential oils the trees give off, is also beneficial.

When I’m not enjoying my locally walkable green space, I often visit Portland’s urban oasis Forest Park. On my most recent trip, I decided to try a few of the forest therapy invitations that I received when I signed up for the newsletter at

Ten Minute Exercises

One exercise that I’ve actually done before is compatible with hiking. It’s called “Pleasures of Presence.” As you move through the forest, let your thoughts go and tune in to your sensory experience. This time around, I was conscious of the way the light looked as it filtered through the trees. I breathed in the scent of the Pacific Northwest, noticing how that scent changed with the species of the trees and other flora. I felt the changing temperature of sunshine and shade on the exposed skin of my face and arms. I listened to the trees as they creaked back and forth on the wind.

Swaying in the breeze

I didn’t stick out my tongue to taste the forest, but a couple weeks ago, I drank a bit of Forest Park in the form of a brew inspired by a Beers Made by Walking hike.

An exercise that I don’t experience while hiking but wanted to try is called “What’s in Motion.” For this one, I had to stop and observe how the forest around me continued to move. I paid attention to what’s in motion nearby, in the distance, and noted the variation. The idea is to rediscover the pace of nature. One of the creatures in motion nearby was a butterfly. It lit on a stretch of sun-bathed vegetation a few feet away. I took out my camera, and it flew away. It flew a specific flight pattern and returned to the same spot. Then, it took off again, joined another butterfly in an aerial dance, ascended to the tree tops, and returned yet again. I snapped this photo somewhere around its fifth or sixth return.

Butterfly really likes this foliage

The Return

Shortly before looping back to my starting point, I paused to spend a slow motion moment with a banana slug. Hikers are wary of stepping on these because they’re slimy and hard to clean off your boots. They’re also a convenient metaphorical reminder to slow down when you’re in the forest and take the time to immerse yourself.

banana slug
I’m moving as fast as I can!

I was glad that I’d taken the time to try these exercises and look forward to incorporating more natural antidepressant immersions into my future forest excursions.

Making Community Happen

This year, I felt closer than usual to people experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder. According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, we had the wettest winter in our community since 1895.

The rain didn’t keep me from getting outside for my daily walk, but I crossed paths with far fewer of my fellow Portlanders than usual: mostly hard core runners who often had pained expressions on their faces and dog owners who couldn’t wait for their pets to do their business so they could go back inside.

Summer Free for All

That’s why Portland’s annual Summer Free for All is essential this year.

The collaboration between Portland Parks and Recreation and 71 community organizations brings free lunches, climbing walls, concerts, and movies to the parks almost every day in July and August.

Most of the year, I don’t make an effort to go hear live music, but I attend every concert at my local Fernhill Park no matter what’s on offer. This year the lineup includes:

  • Tony Starlight (Music, laughter, from Sinatra to the 80s)
  • Edna Vazquez Band (Sensational Latin alternative w/ folkloric roots)
  • Farnell Newton & The Othership Connection (Funk, soul w/ a twist)
  • Robin Jackson & The Caravan (Folk cabaret, gypsy-tinged pop)
  • Colectivo Son Jarocho de Portland (Traditional Afro-Mexican folk)

Music in other parks includes: New Orleans Jazz, reggae, West African, Somali, salsa, Mexican folk, zydeco, Beatles covers, South American cumbias, Cuban, Tongan, Native American, and symphonic.

It’s not the music, but what the music does that counts. It draws people out of their homes to come together in their parks, see friends, have family picnics, and throw frisbees. Uninhibited children and unselfconscious adults get up and dance.

Edna Vasquez Band at Fernhill Community Concert
Everybody Dance Now

If you see me dancing, something’s gone horribly wrong, but you might catch me practicing one of these

Ten Minute Well-Being Exercises

Shared Joy

We often unconsciously pick up on the vibe around us. Hanging around negative people can bring us down. Hanging around happy people, if we’re careful not to resent their being happier than we are, can lighten our mood. Everyone faces challenges. It’s beneficial to acknowledge joy, anybody’s joy, whenever the opportunity arises.

Friendly Intentions

We begin by wishing ourselves a state of well-being, the determination to achieve our potential, the resilience to cope with the normal stresses of life, the opportunity to work productively and fruitfully, and the generosity to make a contribution to our community. We extend that wish to our friends and loved ones, then to others in the community whom we may or may not know. We can shift our attention from person to person in the crowd to practice this. It doesn’t magically create a sense of well-being, but it helps weaken self-centeredness and isolation. It produces a mindset conducive to pursuing well-being.


Take a moment to peruse this list of events. Each one took a tremendous amount of effort by Portland Parks and Recreation, local business sponsors, volunteers from neighborhood organizations, and individual supporters to bring about. The parks themselves are the legacy of those who set aside highly valuable real estate for us to enjoy. I’m very grateful that these events come together every year.


During intermission, volunteers circulate through the audience with watering cans and buckets to offer folks the chance to make individual contributions to their community events. It’s not required, but it’s a very simple way to feel good about giving back.

These events help change the definition of community from:

a group of people living in the same place
a feeling of fellowship with others

As the representative from Portland Parks and Recreation announced at the first Fernhill concert of the season, “We love to see community happen.”