Article by Robert Estes & Oksanna Shulgach | Photographhy by Alexis Knipe & Eric Walther | Owl Staff
Imagine the sound of rustling leaves quietly brushing against the gentle earth, accompanied by the subtle crunching of twigs underfoot. A cool breeze passes over skin as the sun’s rays fall softly on your face. The iridescent streams of light fragment as they pass through the leaves of silently swaying trees, like the reflection of a brilliant diamond held up to a glowing lantern. Without a phone to distract from nature, a flood of pure relaxation ensues.
This experience is a part of Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”
A forest bathing experience won’t completely cure stress, but it can help to relieve it—even if just for a little while.
The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries defined Shinrin-yoku in 1982 as “making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest,” according to The Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences. The Ministry recognized the connection between mental wellbeing and consistent exposure to nature.
Shinrin-yoku is a mental “bathing” process. This practice is an environmental meditation meant to help individuals take a moment to relax, catch their breaths, and retreat from everyday life. The idea is to soak in aspects of nature, like sunlight and fresh air, to enhance wellbeing.
In Japan, work-related stress is a serious cultural issue, and this relaxation practice is used as a coping method. In this country, concerns with finances and employment are a significant contributor to mental illness.
In an interview with National Public Radio, certified Forest Therapy guide Melanie Choukas-Bradley explains, “The aim of forest bathing is to slow down and become immersed in the natural environment.” The woods can provide a welcome change of pace from the life of technology that envelopes our culture.
Forest bathing has made its way to the United States and is becoming a globally recognized practice. The healing value of outdoor activity has been noted by the global scientific community; research consistently shows the benefits of visiting green spaces.
Environmental scientists and the Finnish Forest Research Institute investigated this practice during a study in Finland. The researchers found that exercising out in nature is strongly correlated with better mental health and may also increase sleep quality.
They found that the results “have been positively related to perceived health, concurring with experimental evidence showing stronger restorative outcomes of natural scenes and settings compared with urban settings.”
Colleen Webster, a professor of English at HCC, believes that many people are spending too much time plugged into electronic devices and not enough time enjoying the environment:
“I have watched wonder on a grown woman’s face when she held a bird’s nest for the first time. I share my own enthusiasm over bloodroot in bloom on campus. So, no, I see no negative effects of being in nature, though sometimes [there may be] initial trepidation,” she says.
Webster is not the only local nature enthusiast; there are more experts in our community who can remind us how beneficial just a few minutes outside can be.
Gemma Hartley of Women’s Health Magazine tried this digital disconnect for herself. She finds that forest bathing, alongside medication, helps her manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. “Unlike backpacking or hiking forest bathing isn’t about a workout. Or how far you can trek or climb. It’s about stilling your mind and zeroing in on the sights around you,” she says.
Debbie Ezell, the Director for Health and Physical Education at HCC, includes forest bathing in her Health 105 class. She recognizes the practice’s benefits to people from all walks of life and explains her individual reasons for forest bathing.
“I manage my stress far better when I am able to get outside more frequently, be it to hike, run or garden. Whatever it is that I am worrying about at any given minute really is insignificant in the grand scheme of things,” she says.
Richard Louv, an American journalist and author, often writes about the importance of spending time outside. While writing for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, he points out that exposure to nature has been shown to alleviate symptoms of ADD, ADHD, and unhealthy weight gain, particularly in children.
Louv speculates that younger generations seem to be experiencing what he calls “Nature-Deficit Disorder” (NDD). This disorder is characterized by an increase in mental health issues and physical problems resulting from excessive amounts of time spent indoors or in urban areas.
Biology major, Carly Bach, was perhaps suffering the effects of NDD, but that was alleviated when she spent some time in the sun.
“I have been feeling down for the past few weeks from the stress of school, so my sister and I went on a long walk at the Ma and Pa trail this weekend. I immediately felt calmer and all of the weight lifted off me,” she says.
It’s worth remembering that nature is just outside the front door. Harford County is home to a plethora of forest bathing opportunities. To name a few, four state parks (Rocks, Gunpowder Falls, Palmer, and Susquehanna) provide numerous beautiful trails, and the Eden Mill Nature Center features peaceful grassy areas along Deer Creek.
With a rich variety of nearby natural resources to explore and experienced leaders to show the way, forest bathing close to home is easy and rewarding. Experts confirm that relief from stress can be as simple as spending a few peaceful minutes in the woods. Sometimes, all it takes is a breath of fresh air.