Blog: Forest Bathing
Posted: April 21, 2022
Author: Megan Bizoukas, MSW student
Description of Intervention
Despite the name, forest bathing does not actually involve rubbing yourself down with leaves and twigs in the middle of the woods. Instead, the act of forest bathing is much simpler, and leads to less splinters.
Forest bathing can best be described as immersing oneself in the atmosphere of the forest (Park et al, 2010). Put even more simply, it can be reduced to the act of merely walking within a natural environment and being present in that moment amongst nature (Miyazaki, 2018, p.10). Forest bathing is often used as a preventative medicine practice to reduce stress levels in the body and mind in order to benefit our overall health (Park et al, 2010).
Historical & Cultural Origins
Shinrin-yoku is the original Japanese term for forest bathing. The term was coined by the Japanese Forestry Agency in 1982 as a way to attract people to the many forests of Japan (Miyazaki, 2018, p.9-10). Since the term came into being, however, a number of researchers from mental health fields have taken it upon themselves to explore the physiological and psychological affects of forest bathing. In 2004, the Association of Therapeutic Effects of Forests was established in Japan with the intent to further study the impact forest bathing and nature connections could have on mental health (Park et al, 2010). From there, similar groups and studies began appearing across the world. As the research grew, the practice eventually made its way to the U.S. in the late 2000's, starting as a popular movement in California (Kim, 2021).
Philosophical & Theoretical Foundations
A large motivation for mental health researchers to look into the effects of forest bathing was an observed increase in stress related diseases with both physiological and psychological symptoms. There exists a hypothesis that the increase in stress related diseases is correlated with the increase of urbanization and the number of people living in city, i.e., synthetic, environments (Miyazaki, 2018, p.12).
Forest bathing is thought to be effective in relaxing our minds and bodies because it reconnects us back to the natural world. Before industrialization and urbanization, humankind spent the majority of its time living outdoors or at the very least following cycles of nature. It is theorized that during our history of evolution, our bodies adapted to these natural cycles, and we developed an innate connection to nature not unlike the other creatures of the animal kingdom (Miyazaki, 2018, p.12). By immersing ourselves physically in a natural environment, the connection is restored and our bodies and minds experience relaxation. Furthermore, by engaging in forest bathing and reducing stress, we allow our immune systems to flourish. Higher rates of relaxation aid us in fending off physical and mental sicknesses and fatigue (Miyazaki, 2018, p.24).
To explore the research of applying forest bathing, a target population was chosen: urban dwelling individuals. Two research articles were found applying the intervention of forest bathing to urban dwellers: "The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku" by Park and fellow researchers, and "Sustained effects of a forest therapy program on the blood pressure of office workers" by Song, Ikei, and Miyazaki.
The Park research team conducted a controlled experiment wherein one group was sent to view and walk through the forest on day one while the other was sent to view and walk through the city to compare and contrast the effects of the differing environments on individuals. On the second day, the groups switched environments. In both cases, the group who was sent to view and experience the natural setting experienced decreased levels of stress evidenced by measured physiological markers and self-reported states of mood or psychological being (Park et al, 2010). Specifically, absorbing the forest environment led to decreased blood pressure, decreased cortisol levels, decreased pulse rate, and decreased feelings of fatigue. Interestingly, a sense of vigor was reported as increasing when in the forest environment (Park et al, 2010). Overall, the forest environment produced much lower rates of stress than the urban environment.
The Song research team conducted an experiment on twenty-six office workers all from the same company. The office workers were enrolled in a single day forest therapy program. The forest therapy program included activities such as meditation, walking, viewing scenery, and deep breathing all in the setting of the forest. The study measured the blood pressure of each office worker three days before the intervention, during the intervention, three days after the intervention, and five days after the intervention. What they found was that, on average, the participants' blood pressure decreased significantly during and up to five days after the forest therapy intervention (Song et al, 2017).
While no adverse events were reported for either study, there were still some limitations to the experiments. The Park research study had only twelve participants, all of which were young men (Park et al, 2010). A larger, more diverse group of participants would be needed to generalize the results of the study to a larger population. The Song research study lacked a control group which limited the comparability of their findings. The authors of the study also highlight that to measure the sustainability of the effects of forest bathing on blood pressure or reduced stress, results should be measured farther out than five days following the intervention (Song et al, 2017).
To conduct forest bathing, no formal training is necessary. All that is needed is an accessible outdoor space and the intention to be present and focused on the experience. There is no governing board overseeing the regulation of forest bathing or enforcing guidelines.
Forest bathing is an intuitive practice that can be stimulated by any number of natural stimuli and does not require a guide (Miyazaki, 2018, p.23).
Burnout and compassion fatigue are common for social workers who experience prominent levels of stress and sometimes secondary trauma in the field. Self-care can be a method to manage intense emotions and stress. In a study centered on trauma, stress, and self-care, Butler, Carello, and Maguin found that the majority of the participants in their study reported self-care as being significantly important to their well-being. However, about 50% of those participants also reported a decrease in self-care efforts since beginning clinical training (Butler et al, 2017).
Forest bathing could be an excellent self-care option for social workers to engage in as it is accessible in many settings and does not require additional training or extraneous amounts of time. According to the Butler study, social workers recognize the importance of self-care, but we do not prioritize it in our daily lives (2017). Engaging in a simple meditative act such as forest bathing may be a way to make self-care seem more feasible in the midst of other life and work-related demands.
A potential barrier for anyone looking to engage in forest bathing is access to a green space or park. If there are no such outdoors areas within your neighborhood, transportation may be required which comes with the added burden of additional planning and budgeting. However, this barrier should be minimal, as any element of nature can produce positive affects on the mind and body, even a flower near growing near a bench (Miyazaki, 2018, p.23).
Application in Practice
Exploring forest bathing as a potential practice for client use first requires the social worker in questions to explore their own feelings and experiences with the practices. A social worker must be comfortable with the practice before discussing it with a client (Runfola, Levine, Sherman, 2006, p.90). Exploring the potential benefits and risks of engaging in the practice draws upon the social work skills of active listening and honoring the autonomy of the client by aiding in supporting their decision (Runfola et al, 2006, p.89). To fully understand if forest bathing is the best practice for a specific client, the social worker must understand the client's interest level in the practice, their accessibility to an outdoor environment, and how the practice may affect any current physical or mental challenges of the client. For example, imagine you are working in a community mental health center as a micro social worker in an urban area and seeing an individual for counseling sessions. Before exploring forest bathing as a potential aid in reducing their reported stress, you must discuss with them their interest in alternative treatment options and their accessibility to a safe green space in their area.
The practice of forest bathing aligns with social work values in many ways. As already mentioned, supporting a client's choice to engage in forest bathing calls upon the social work ethical standard 1.02: the right to self-determination (NASW, 2022, p.7). Respecting and upholding a client's right to autonomy also enforced the social work value of respecting the dignity and worth of each individual person (NASW, 2022, p.5)). Finally, exploring and understanding this intervention increases the knowledge base of each social worker who engages in forest bathing which supports the value of competence (NASW, 2022, p.6).
Forest bathing is a proven method of stress reduction and can be easily incorporated into everyone's self-care routine. Just remember- there is no literal bathing involved in forest bathing.