Forest Bathing in NYC: Go outside to improve your mental health

The last days of summer are slowly creeping by. Maybe you’ve been longingly counting your unused Summer Fridays, or are saving your big trip for Labor Day weekend. Whatever the reason you’ve been indoors or unable to leave the city, take this blog post as your excuse to get outside, find some nature and enjoy yourself, all in the name of improving your mental health.

Forest bathing or “Shinrin-Yoku” is a Japanese practice of communing mindfully with nature through guided walks in the forest, and has been gaining popularity  around the world. In a traditional walk, bathers are invited to take part in healing interactions with elements in the environment, from short seated meditations to simply noticing movement in the plants around you. All the activities in a Shinrin-Yoku walk were developed with the intention of opening to the sensory experience of the world around you.

The scientifically-proven benefits of Shinrin-Yoku are the result of a dynamic interplay between you and the trees. No hugging required! Trees naturally produce phytoncides, which are antimicrobial compounds that protect them from germs and insects. Many varieties of local trees, including pine, oak, and locust trees are known to give off phytoncides. One of the most-studied phytoncide-producing trees is the Japanese Hinoki Cypress. Exposure to phytoncides encourages the production of white blood cells in humans, which similarly attack viruses and abnormalities in the body, including cancer.

The immune-boosting effects of forest bathing are especially useful for New Yorkers who experience chronic stress. When we experience a stressful situation, the hormone cortisol is released into the body. Cortisol suppresses the immune response and can weaken the immune system over periods of long exposure. Whether you’re stuck in constant anxiety-inducing work reviews with your boss, or dealing with a challenging partner or family member, we all experience stress in varying degrees. By spending regular time walking in a forest, we can redirect our body’s hormonal balance toward health.

If you can’t get to a pine forest easily, you can still try elements of forest therapy in the city. One of the simplest practices in forest therapy is establishing a “Sit Spot” – a setting you return to regularly to observe nature. This could be a park bench near your office, a pier, a favorite smooth rock in Central Park, a secret nook in a botanical garden, or your backyard.

Susan Joachim, a Forest Therapy Guide from Australia, provides the following instructions for selecting a good “Sit Spot:”

When you are just starting with the Sit Spot, find a spot that is easy to get to: not more than a few minutes from your door.

Make your time at your sit spot distraction and technology free. (Don’t bring your cell phone.)

Thirty minutes is a good length of time for sitting. However, you can start with just ten minutes.

At your Sit Spot, it’s important to be able to expand your senses and let go of thinking. When thoughts arise, I invite you to come back to your senses; to the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and feel of the place. You may be surrounded by people in a local park, but you’re not interacting with them.”

Once you’ve been going to your Sit Spot for a while, you could try incorporating this meditation guide to enhance your experience. If you’re lucky enough to have access to hiking trails, forests, and a group of people, try going for a group nature walk. A recent study from the US & UK shows that group walks in nature are proven to decrease depression and stress.

The therapists at Winterkorn Counseling know that treating mental health extends beyond the office, and is an integrative practice of balancing mental, physical, and spiritual energies. We encourage you to try new things and report back! To find a Forest Therapy guide near you, click here.  To make an appointment with a therapist on our team to share your experience with, click here.