So, recently I was discussing with someone how they enjoyed being outside and how being indoors feels restricting. I have had this conversation many times with people and generally it leads to how spending time in nature can be beneficial. Then, I followed up with some reading and came across an article about the benefits of spending 20 minutes in nature. The article, featured on Technologynetwork titled “Twenty Minutes in Nature is Enough to Cut Stress Hormone Levels” proposed that spending time in the woods could lower stress hormones and have a global positive effect on the body.
The topic came up again when I was speaking with a colleague about their affinity for camping. When they shared with me how they enjoyed sleeping in the woods and spending time under the stars at night, I was curious. “But it’s so close to being homeless?” I said. They seemed puzzled when I said, “You have a perfectly good home in which to live and you choose to live outside…like a bear?” This, again made me curious about why someone would choose to spend time outside.
People run in the wild, people do this thing called “hiking” (I think it’s pronounced hi-keee-ing), and of course there is camping. When I was reading more however, it seemed that there is a practice that appears globally called “forest bathing.” In Japan, it seems to be a very well-established practice for lowering stress and coping. There, they refer to it as shinrin-yoku, translated to literally “forest bathing.”
It seems that spending time in nature is linked to lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands that is a factor in a number of things, including stress. Cortisol is involved in managing our metabolism (how carbs, fats, and proteins are processed), reducing inflammation, regulating blood pressure, increasing blood sugar, and regulating our circadian rhythms (wake and sleep cycles).
Do these things sound familiar? When we are stressed, things like our diet, sleeping, and blood pressure can be affected. These campers may be onto something.
Image Discovered on Pinterest
Looking further into this stuff, it seems that things start to fit together when we consider the role of cortisol and our nervous system. Our nervous system is a series of connections that receive, transport, and deliver information our body receives from the outside or internally. It works through a number of different receptor cells and chemical transmitters and cortisol is one of them. That bugger keeps showing up in this thing.
The way they taught us about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in school goes something like this: The sympathetic system heightens things (it’s activated when we are scared or feeling that adrenaline rush) and the parasympathetic nervous systems is the “parachute” that brings us back down from it. Considering that cortisol plays a role in this cycle of being heightened (the fight or flight response), it makes sense that something that can help us regulate the levels of this hormone (being out in nature) would calm us and help dampen stress.
“Yeah, Gregg that sounds great–spend some time in the woods to help with my stress! Do you know how long I have been dealing with this stress?” I mean, no, rhetorical person who is mostly a literary device; but I am glad you brought that up. The idea of forest bathing is an idea that is being used in a number of countries (for example, Nordic countries and Japan, according to my reading) who have been prescribing a “forest pill.” This forest pill is prescribed for people who are struggling with stress. It is advised by professionals to spend anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes at least three times a week in nature in order to cope with stress and benefit from the calming effect of forest bathing on cortisol levels.
NPR recently did a program on forest bathing and shared how there are even professionals called “certified forest therapy guides” (if it’s a thing, it’s a job and it could be yours too!). The program is called Forest Bathing: A Retreat To Nature Can Boost Immunity And Mood and can be found on NPR’s website. It described how the guide spends time with individuals in a Washington, D.C. state park. The guide advises that this isn’t hiking, rafting, or climbing, but instead engaging in a mindful relaxed state while forest bathing. The program advised mindful experiences in nature that are not directly aimed at results, but instead having an experience outside. Some health care providers are even prescribing forest bathing to patients in order to destress in nature. According to NPR, Japanese scientists measured people walking in the city and walking in a forest area and the forest walk led to a marked drop in stress hormones and blood pressure. Both walks involved the same amount of physical effort and time.
Don’t think I forgot about you, my chronically stressed person. There is another area to discuss about you, my friend. Some people experience a high level of stress so consistently that it becomes their norm. These are the people that sometimes cancel plans at the last minute or will tell you, “I think I am always stressed but I am used to it by now.” The effects of chronic stress seem to be the same according to articles in Frontier in Psychology, as well as some information that I found in a Time Magazine article that repeated how being in the forest affected chronic stress. The Time article commented on how it was observed by The Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology that people in urban settings spend 93% of their time indoors. This seems to be related to factors that contribute to stress. So it is seeming to make more sense that spending some time ou doors may benefit our mental health.
People who may be feeling the effects of consistent stress in their life may also experience the following, according to WebMD: emotional issues, headaches, problems with digestion, weight gain, and trouble sleeping. Again, these symptoms seem to be related to some of the things that cortisol plays a role in, as mentioned earlier in this article. The aerobic nature of walking, added to the possibility that spending time in nature can calm us, can lead to health benefits such as a clearer head and improved digestion(cite source).
Local areas in Bucks County that I would recommend for communing with nature would be Tyler State Park, Washington Crossing Historic Park, and Kids Castle, if the little folks are coming along. In New Jersey, I am a big fan of Grounds for Sculpture (also a great place to bring a date). As for the rest of Pennsyltucky, you can’t go wrong in Brandywine, PA. Swing a cat in any direction and you’ll find something beautiful in nature. Lucky for you, however, you may not have to travel that far. Here’s a little known secret: if you leave the building you are presently in, you will likely be in nature…with all the grass, trees, bugs, and pollen, you could want.
So, based on the readings, here is what Gregg recommends: take a trip out in the nature that’s out there. Considering it is spring and I am presently outside at a restaurant writing this article, and it’s 77 degrees, the weather is on your side. Pick a place to take a walk. Also, a big part of this is safety and setting the stage. This should not be a walk in the park…with your phone. While I know some people are more attached to them than other things, the point of being in nature is to detach from a lot of the things that may cause us stress while indoors. I do not advise not bringing your phone with you, however. Some of the articles suggested bringing a compass…and I doubt that will go over well. First, how many people just have a compass? If you do can I borrow your sextant as well?
With that being said, don’t overpack. As much as it will be healthy to go out, there is no reason to heft a 30-pound bag. Make sure to tell someone where you are going and for how long you plan to be out there. That way, assuming they remember, someone will be looking for you should you decide to take up life with the tree people of the woods. Be safe out there. Dress for the occasion. Be aware of your surroundings and maybe bring someone with you, like a furry friend…maybe a dog. Don’t freak the cat out by forcing it to traverse the terrain outside.
The last thing is, of course, enjoy yourself. Sometimes when we have been experiencing stress for so long, the last thing we want to even considering doing is something new and outside of our comfort zone. However, we can benefit from giving ourselves new experiences. Forest bathing is something that can be an activity you share with someone or do on your own. The research suggests that 10 to 20 minutes three times a week will lead to positive results.
For those of you who are reading this article and saying, “Yeah, right, Gregg is saying go outside but he’s inside writing these things,” here is a picture of me with my Dog in some park for the proof part of the pudding.
I hope that if any of the wonderful people reading this blog are looking for a way to destress that forest bathing is a good option for you. Remember to be safe and enjoy yourself. Spending three days in the woods to “really get back at that stress” is not advisable. Let me know your favorite spots in the comments and, if you like, share some photos from your travels in the wild!
Snowy at the park ©GreggSnook