I Tried ‘Forest Therapy.’ Here’s What It Did for My Mental Health
Written by Shelby Deering on October 25, 2019 For Healthlines magazine
These are my takeaways from my soothing, nature-filled afternoon.
Flashes of green appear in the corner of my eye as I speed through the trees, immersed in my running app and a Lizzo song on my playlist.
I catch some things here and there: a scurrying chipmunk crosses the path, a patch of sunlight glimmers ahead of me. But mostly, I’m in my head and in my feet as I cross a metaphorical finish line, completing my mileage for the day.
Even though I love to run and there’s something to be said for distraction and sinking into what your body can accomplish, I can recall several times when I’ve come home from a run feeling as if I didn’t really see my surroundings.
At my core, I’m someone who does enjoy slowing down and taking things in.
But between a busy writing schedule, workouts, and day to day happenings and responsibilities, the leaves in my backyard may beautifully blow in the wind and there’s a good chance I won’t fully appreciate the moment.
I’m also someone who has a continuous loop going nonstop in her head. Thoughts move speedily like cars on a highway, slowing only slightly while I meditate or power down for sleep.
These constant musings can be attributed to the myriad of mental health disorders I deal with on a daily basis. From anxiety to panic disorder to seasonal depression, I often feel as if my body and brain are squared against an unseen foe on a battlefield.
I do have several coping mechanisms in my arsenal that have proved to be a great help, and more recently, I have begun to practice Radical Acceptance (an approach detailed in Tara Brach’s book of the same name).
I’m teaching myself to pause, symbolically step back, and observe my fast-moving thoughts from a distance, which can slow everything down.
I remember first reading about forest bathing a few years ago, and I became fascinated.
I’ve always been one to prefer being outdoors than in, spending my childhood chasing butterflies and walking in the woods behind my house with my dad. I loved that the Japanese had developed something they referred to as “shinrin-yoku,” and discovered that spending quality time with trees could actually improve one’s mental health.
So, when I heard that there was a real, live, professional forest therapy guide here in Madison, Wisconsin, I knew I had to experience true forest bathing for myself.
I’ve been known to say that I’m “forest bathing” if I go for a run or hike in a wooded area, believing that simply being in proximity to trees will allow me to reap mental health benefits. And while any time spent in nature is certainly good for the soul, it doesn’t compare to an immersive afternoon participating in forest therapy.
Now I know the difference.
Kate Bast, certified nature and forest therapy guide, ANFT, started Shinrin-yoku Madison in early 2019 and conducts private and group walks through Wisconsin forests. Like me, she felt drawn to forest therapy the first time she learned of the term.
Study after study has suggested a therapeutic connection between forest bathing and mental health.
Calling forest therapy a “balm” for mental health, Kate explains that the practice can soothe the nervous system, halt the fight, flight, or freeze response, soften rumination and mood disorders, and can get us out of our heads.
“It is not mindfulness, where you have awareness of your thoughts and thinking patterns,” she says, “but rather a sensory experience, activating, opening, and leaning into the senses in a way that connects us with our bodies and what we are feeling and what is pleasing”
“I like to call it ‘mindlessness,’” she adds.
I contacted her to set up a private walk, which we scheduled for a September afternoon. She chose a serene, little-known forest for our session, where she said I could really “drop into the moment.”
My mental state leading up to the walk was scattered and exhausted. I had recently returned from a 3,600-mile road trip, an event I enjoyed but simultaneously left me feeling depleted and out of whack.
I had high hopes that this forest therapy walk would be the reset button I was searching for.
I pulled my car into a small parking lot, turned off the engine, and couldn’t believe how silent my surroundings were. Save the occasional bird song or rustling of leaves, the forest was unbelievably still, broken only by the passing of a car.
That’s when Kate emerged from the woods, telling me that she’d already been hiking for an hour and soaking up the land.
After pulling on my day pack and tightening up my shoelaces on my boots, I felt ready to participate fully in the hike.
Before entering the forest, Kate explained the format she had planned for our walk. As a practice that engages the senses and encourages participants to explore the meanderings of their minds, a forest bathing experience is typically broken up into “invitations” shared by the guide. The number of these invitations can vary from walk to walk.
That day, after walking for a bit and getting a sense of the forest, Kate was planning to present me with 4 thought provoking invitations.
“So… talking or no talking?” I asked as a person who tends to talk things out when thoughts arise.
“I tend to prefer little to no talking if possible,” Kate said, explaining that the quiet would help me immerse myself in each moment.
She added that forest bathing “removes the hamster from the wheel,” a welcoming idea to someone with an ever-spinning wheel located within her mind.
My first invitation was a literal invitation to lay down on a yoga mat on the forest floor while Kate guided me through a sensory meditation.
Between her gentle voice and the tranquility of the woods, I found myself able to let go and zero in on the tiniest things: the wind delicately swaying the trees, the patterns in the leaves above me, the smell of the moss — I could hear the tiny squeals of mosquitoes nearby and wasn’t even bothered by it.
Grounded and soothed, we began moving slowly and deliberately through the forest, a pace that Kate says “is not cardio.”
I was instructed to notice who or what was in motion, picking up on the teeniest of movements throughout the forest.
As I engaged in this invitation, I couldn’t believe the things I miss during my runs. The spider spinning a sunlight-soaked web. The dew on the flowers. How the smells change as I move along a path — from wet and earthy to fresh and floral.
The noticing of these things deeply quieted my busy mind.
The next invitation served as a metaphor for life.
As we traversed the path, we would notice things around us and fill in the blank in this phrase: “The _____ of my life’s path.”
I began firing them off. The mud of my life’s path. The rocks of my life’s path. The breeze of my life’s path, mentally leaning into the deep-seated meanings of these metaphors and how they applied to my life.
Lastly, Kate showed me how to introduce myself to a tree.
Shinrin-yoku practitioners greatly respect trees and believe that they’re the protectors and wise watchers of the forest. As we stood in front of a centuries-old tree, she told me to look at the entire tree, first at the bottom, making my way to the top, where I gazed in disbelief at its height. I ran my hand across its bark, noting the changes in texture.
At this point in the walk, Kate says people even hug or name a tree during the introduction. The names that cycled through my mind didn’t feel worthy of this great tree, but I came away imagining all the stories it could tell from its 200-year existence.
Our walk was capped with a genuinely peaceful experience: a tea ceremony, nestled within the trees.
In her backpack, Kate had managed to bring along beautiful linens, wooden cups for serving pine needle tea (which she made herself), and goodies that represented the season, and foods that can be discovered on local lands: walnuts, dried apples, cranberries, and pumpkin seeds.
Later that evening, I felt tired… and content.
Usually when I feel tired, it’s much harder to manage my mental health and accompanying thoughts, but this evening, things had quieted down in my mind.
I slept perfectly, which is something that many of Kate’s participants report after a walk. As I write this a week later, something is different in my mind. Kate says that the effects of forest bathing can last several days.
As much as I would love to engage in a deeply-satisfying forest therapy walk every day of my life, I will take this away from my experience. Slowing down and observing the most minuscule details forces the cars in my mind to put the brakes on, which is a feeling I will gladly welcome in the midst of my mental health hurdles.
Last night, I went for a trail run and left my headphones at home. My eyes took more in than ever, noticing the horse chestnuts ready to fall from the tops of the trees, the lively butterflies, and the near-imperceptible puffs of wind that moved the leaves.
The roar of my thoughts became a hum in the background, feeling grateful for nature and a new way to calm my mind.
Shelby Deering is a lifestyle writer based in Madison, Wisconsin, with a master’s degree in journalism. She specializes in writing about wellness and for the past 14 years has contributed to national outlets including Prevention, Runner’s World, Well+Good, and more. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her meditating, searching for new organic beauty products, or exploring local trails with her husband and corgi, Ginger.