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 shinrin-yoku.org.

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
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
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.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.