How nature can fix your stress at work

A week ago, I was in the Catskills Mountains in New York, hiking up rocks and dirt. It was sweaty, calves-burning work, but I noticed an immediate difference in my mood when I returned to the office the next day. I was more relaxed and less stressed. Minor annoyances stayed minor annoyances. Traffic delays and deadlines didn’t faze me.

Japan has a word for what I did: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing.

We could all use more stress-reduction strategies like forest bathing. A study found that workplace stressors like long hours, job insecurity, and a lack of work-life balance add up to $190 billion in healthcare costs. The Japanese have another word for what’s at stake: karoshi, or death by overwork. Along with its culture of working long hours, Japan has the second-highest suicide rate in industrialized nations.

Nature is so effective a cure for some of the anxiety that ails us, in fact, that the Japanese government marketed forest bathing as a form of preventative medicine in the 1980s. Here’s why: Under this topiary therapy, you engage nature with all five of your senses, so that you can become more mindful of the world around you. It wouldn’t necessarily mean the sweaty hiking that I did. In forest bathing, you slow down and pay attention to the fresh air you’re breathing in, and that cool insect, and the crunch of leaves underneath your boots.

Nature makes us more chill and less stressed in only 30 minutes.

Forest bathing is based on ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices and it’s been backed by science to work.

Japanese researchers have linked 30-minute walks in the woods to lower blood pressure and stress levels. A separate study found that inhaling tree-based compounds like phytoncide improved cell activity in our immune systems.

In fact, scientists have found that our skin has the ability to “smell” scents like sandalwood, which enhance cell growth and healing. That’s all the more reason to be around nature and natural products.

How to fake nature

We will not always have a forest nearby to escape to, but there are alternatives. You can start small and walk around your block and take in the trees on your street. City dwellers can also go to their local park and mosey around the manmade landscapes. Those smaller doses of nature can still make a difference in our stress levels.

If you can’t escape your cubicle, you can still bring nature to you. A BBC Earth study found that watching nature documentaries makes us happier too. Virtual nature increased participants’ amazement, wonder, and curiosity, and decreased their nervousness, anxiety and fear.

The point is to get out of your work mindset and realize that there’s a wonderful big world around you. As transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau once noted in his defense of forest walking, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”