Forest Bathing in the Age of Social Distancing

Many of us are “social distancing” due to the recent Covid-19 pandemic, spending more time at home and isolating ourselves from our communities to slow the spread of the disease. 

This is an important and necessary step to help keep us safe, but it’s not easy. Since we have little contact with friends and family members and may be concerned for our health, we’re likely to struggle with anxiety and stress throughout this time. 

In fact, a recent Pew Research study found that approximately 18% of adults in the United States reported feeling nervous or anxious this March—that’s up from 9% in a 2018 survey. 

So, in this age of limited social contact, how can we take steps to stay mentally and emotionally healthy? 

One strategy is to return to an age-old practice that has sustained humans for generations: taking a walk in the woods.

Though it’s an ancient concept, you may have heard the term “forest bathing” recently, derived from the Japanese term shirin-yoku, the mindful practice of spending time in forests as a mental and physical break. In the Japanese tradition, forest bathing can last for hours, as people disconnect from the pressures of their lives and reconnect with their environment. 

Academic research, including studies from the University of Washington, supports this practice. Findings indicate that spending time in nature has a plethora of health benefits, including reducing mental strain, promoting a sense of calm and mindfulness, lessening dementia-related symptoms, and helping improve focus and attention. 

Your own forest bathing efforts don’t have to be extensive or time-consuming. Here are some tips to help get started:

Find a wooded space where you can walk comfortably. Forest bathing works best when you can comfortably stroll through a forest without worrying about getting lost, wandering off track, or encountering rough terrain. A local park, arboretum, or backyard is perfect. Keep in mind, for the duration of the pandemic, it’s wise to pick a location where you can also maintain the recommended six-foot separation from others. 

Inform your loved ones of when you plan to return. As with all outdoor adventures, it’s best to advise loved ones of your plans, especially where you are going and when you plan to return. Because forest bathing is intended to be a low-stress, meditative experience, having loved ones aware of your plans will help you enjoy the moment and not be distracted by phone calls or text messages.

If possible, put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode. One of the benefits of forest bathing is the opportunity to “pause” our daily lives and truly immerse ourselves in nature. If possible, consider putting your phone in “Do Not Disturb” mode so you can concentrate on the scenery around you. If that’s not possible, then try to minimize using your phone while you walk. 

When walking, concentrate on your surroundings. Actually spending time observing and noticing our surroundings may be harder than it seems in today’s always-connected age. Make an effort while walking to be mindful of the forest around you, the temperature of the air, and the texture of the ground underfoot. Momentarily “turning off” your active mind will leave you feeling more refreshed and renewed after you return.

Forest bathing has helped humans ground themselves, alleviate stress, and become more mindful for generations. When you feel like you need a break in the weeks ahead, consider trying the practice yourself at your local forest. 

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