The Japanese have known the joy of immersing yourself in the forest for years, firstly, thanks to their culturally ingrained Shinto reverence for the natural world. But, in 1982, Japanese scientists discovered that being amongst the trees, leaning against their trunks, and yes, hugging them – measurably reduced stress and lowered blood pressure in as little as three minutes of exposure. This led the Forest Agency of Japan to launch a nation-wide preventative health programme of ’shinrin-yoku’ (taking in the forest atmosphere).
Many of you who have been taking regular walks in green spaces during the pandemic lockdown, have no doubt, already experienced the physical and mental health benefits to a spot of forest bathing. Dr Aisha Ahmad, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, has seen the mental health benefits first-hand while working in the heart of conflict-zones such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan. ‘Wherever there is disaster, you will experience prolonged periods of confinement. The green space is a magical remedy to the internal distress of being confined,’ she says, ‘It is one of the most effective mental health tools that I know of.’
As the pandemic restrictions are easing, and the weather is more inviting, Ahmad says, ‘Our societal contract with our green spaces has changed. [We should see them] not as unlimited leisure spaces but rather as essential and rationed mental health spaces that we all need in a very different way. When you see that this walk, this park that used to be just sort of pretty and pleasant, is now keeping you alive and well on the inside – it is a transformative experience.’
There are also physiological mental benefits to forest bathing. Part of our brain, the hippocampus, is very active in forming auto-biographical memory and memories of events and the best way to maintain or strengthen this faculty is also the main rule in forest-bathing: immersing in and exploring your natural surroundings, the way we used to do as children.
‘Children are unblemished explorers,‘ says Michael Bond, a science journalist and author of From Here to There: The Art and Science of Finding and Losing our Way. ‘If you watch a child in their environment, they move in a very different way to adults. If you ask an adult to go from A to B, they tend to go there in the most direct or quickest way. But a child won’t do that, they will start off and get distracted by things they find along the route and the destination.’ This is how you should approach a session of forest-bathing. But avoid using your phone to navigate because, Bond explains, this negates the memory-building benefits of exploration.
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