By Kate Pauley, MFTC
The Organic Anxiety Toolbox Series: Forest Bathing
Anxiety is a common experience that plagues many of us, humans, from time to time. For some, anxiety can be chronic and for others, it pops up here and there. Symptoms of anxiety also range from feeling tense to panic attacks. There will not be one quick-fix solution that works for everyone as anxiety is unique to every individual.
However, there have been many practices that have been found to ease anxiety in high percentages of people. Try the various exercises out yourself and figure out what works best for you. If you already know of something that is working, keep on doing it! But if that solution doesn’t work one day, pull another option out of your toolbox and try that one on for size.
First, it is important that you are able to recognize when anxiety is coming on. For you, you may notice something mental, like your thoughts, begin to race, you might notice something physical like your palms get sweaty or your heart rate quickens, you may notice something behavioral, like your speech, quickens. First, just notice what happens for you so that you may more quickly recognize when you are experiencing feelings of anxiety. Second, keep in mind that everything is temporary. The feelings of anxiety are just that: feelings. They come and go and change moment to moment. Anxiety is not a static way of being, so remember that ‘this too shall pass.’
With that in mind, you can then reach into your toolbox to alleviate symptoms of anxiety. My recommendation is to keep 5 or 6 tried and true practices in your toolbox that you can use at a moment’s notice. Know these practices like the back of your hand. You can even trace your hand and write out your practices on each finger and hang it somewhere to serve as a reminder of all that you have available to you in your toolbox. On your hand you could write things like: take a walk, do a breathing exercise, listen to music, practice yoga, stretch, read a book, call a friend, etc.
A lesser-known technique to add to your toolbox is called shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. Forest bathing was started in Japan in 1982 and has proven to be effective across countries and demographics. Though it sounds like stripping off your clothes and bathing in the forest, it is actually a mindfulness practice out in nature. “Forest bathing involves simply going into nature and being present with all five senses. The use and presence of technology is discouraged… and many participants forest bathe with bare feet for the full grounding effect” (Roberts, 2021, p. 3). The practice is to let your body be the guide. To get out of your head and be aware of what is going on around you.
Traditionally, forest bathing is practiced for 2 hours a day, but most of us don’t have time for that, so aim for 2 hours a week. Spend 15-20 minutes outside per day, just allowing yourself to be. Forest bathing is not a hike or a run, there is no destination in mind. Allow yourself to go wherever you feel, to smell all the smells, to inspect anything that looks interesting, to touch and feel what is around you.
“Shinrin-yoku began as preventative medicine for the immune system, cardiovascular system, depression and anxiety, inflammation and other prevalent health problems… it has been shown to lower your heart rate and blood pressure. It has a whole host of positive mood effects… and generally has a strong relaxing effect” (Roberts, 2021, p. 4). Forest bathing allows you to turn off your brain and relax. With anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure typically increase rapidly, but forest bathing allows them to come back down to a normal state.
The best part is that forest bathing is completely free. For those of you who live in a city, there are often green spaces around that would be great for an activity like forest bathing. If it feels too awkward to roam around with no purpose, start by setting up a blanket and laying or sitting in the sun. Allow yourself to feel the elements and breathe and be out in nature. As you get more comfortable, incorporate some movement. This may look like walking around, but it could also look like stretching or napping on the earth.
Notice afterward how you feel. The effects of forest bathing can be felt immediately, or they may show themselves to you in the hours or days after.
The most important thing to remember is that nature will do the healing, you just have to show up. Turn off your devices, unplug, and be. Do these few things and you my friend are forest bathing.