Harvard professor says this odd activity is a game changer for dealing with stress

Right now is stressful. We’re trying to stay healthy, reevaluating values and questioning what we’ll define as normal going forward. We all need breaks to heal our minds and bodies from time-to-time and to renew motivation. But sometimes our house or streets are too full of distractions to help. Although needed, many of us can’t take the time or money out for therapy.

Try forest therapy, meditative practice of walking through the woods using all your senses.

“Unlike a hike or guided nature walk aimed at identifying trees or birds, forest therapy relies on trained guides, who set a deliberately slow pace and invite people to experience the pleasures of nature through all of their senses. It encourages people to be present in the body, enjoying the sensation of being alive and deriving profound benefits from the relationship between ourselves and the rest of the natural world,” said Dr. Susan Abookire MPH, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

The practice of forest therapy is shockingly healthy for your body. Sounds silly? It was touted in Japan in the 1980s to help people relax from a culture of stress and overwork. It might help you. There are many benefits to getting into some greenery.

Getting in nature relieves stress. One of the first effects is that forest bathing or forest therapy relieves cortisol, a stress hormone. A research review showed, “In all but two included studies, cortisol levels were significantly lower after intervention in forest groups if compared with control/comparison groups.”

Forest bathing may also boost immunity. The essential oils trees put off, called phytoncides,  have antimicrobial properties. Dr. Abookire said, “One Japanese study showed a rise in number and activity of immune cells called natural killer cells, which fight viruses and cancer, among people who spent three days and two nights in a forest versus people who took an urban trip. This benefit lasted for more than a month after the forest trip!”

Just a short trek in the woods can boost health. Studies suggest spending just about two hours can help people report better health. Another study shows that depression, anxiety and high blood pressure can all be relieved by forest therapy. By walking in the woods, taking in the wind rustling the leaves, we absorb many of the helpful effects tree oils produce. It can also make you feel and look less inflamed. So getting outdoors makes you look and feel better.

Looking at nature shortens the time it takes to heal. Looking out a window can boost healing. In one study from decades ago, patients that had a window to look out of, and patients with gallbladder surgery left the hospital quicker.

Green spaces or even pictures help focus. If you’re stuck inside, just looking at photographs of nature or touching tree bark can get you back in tune with senses. And doing so improves focus. 

How to recreate it in your situation

Sitting: Get into the greenest space you can, take a deep breath supporting the spine and close your eyes. Take in the sounds. If you’re stuck in a city, put up posters of natures and put on earbuds. Bilateral sound, in both ears, helps you feel and connect sound to your mind. 

Walking: Go very slow for ten minutes or so, touching, feeling and seeing all you can. “Be present in nature, and discover what nature has to present you,” said Jane Burress, a forest therapy guide.

If you do live near nature, check out the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy to find a guide to walk you through the practice. Take some time to breathe this week, and notice the green leaves of the trees, even the stray weed or two. You’ll feel chiller for it.