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Treelaxation: Nature’s Prozac

Updated: May 18, 2022

The forest has many gifts to offer us if we slow down and open up our senses to receive them. Known as Shinrin-yoku in Japan, forest bathing was inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices and has been practiced in Japan since the 1980s as a natural, low-cost way to manage stress-related diseases caused the over-stimulated, stressful modern lifestyle. What started as an intuitive-based therapy has become an evidence-based therapy that can now be considered a preventative medicine.

I discovered forest therapy in a desperate quest to manage my anxiety from the “busy”ness of high stress urban life. As an executive in financial services, I would escape the city as often as I could to breathe, relax and decompress. After a particularly deep spiritual experience in Bali, I made the decision to find a way to live my life in a peaceful state of mind every single day. This led to a learning journey that included several teacher trainings for restorative yoga practices, meditation and eventually forest therapy.

In North America, forest therapy is quickly becoming a recognized practice as more guides get certified and more participants experience the healing benefits of a guided walk, often feeling “treelaxed” — very relaxed, peaceful and connected. Many participants have meaningful insights and learn lessons about themselves and their lives.

Over 40 years of global research has proven significant health benefits including:

• A reduction in stress and cortisol levels reducing feelings of stress, anxiety, calming the nervous system, even combating depression and PTSD

• Improved overall mood and wellbeing, greater clarity of thought, creativity and critical thinking, increased ability to focus, more energy and better sleep

• Reduced blood pressure

• Strengthened immune system, accelerated recovery from surgery or illness

• Improved executive function in adults and children with ADHD

There is a growing body of research that indicates that nature makes us happier, healthier, and more creative.

1. Phytoncides in forest air can contribute to increased NK activity when visiting a forest. Phytoncides are wood essential oils (that forest smell) which are antimicrobial volatile organic compounds derived from trees. NK cells are a type of lymphocyte, white blood cells that play a vital role in our immune systems, a front line defense system to guard against tumours and attacking infections. The level of activity of these cells is closely related to the level of stress or relaxation in our bodies. NK cells are a good indicator when it comes to determining how forest therapy improves immune function. A number of studies have been conducted by Japanese scientists Quing Li, Yoshifumi Miyazaki and in north America, Florence Williams. One sample study below found that the forest environment enhances human natural killer (NK) cell activity, the number of NK cells and intracellular anti-cancer proteins in lymphocytes that lasted for more than seven days after trips to the forest.

Quing Li, et al., “Effects of Phytoncide from Trees on Human Natural Killer Cell Function”.” International Journal of Ummunopathology and Pharmacology, vol 22, no. 4 (2009) pp 951–59

2. Forest bathing has become a recognized relaxation and stress management activity all over the world. Studies demonstrate that time in the forest can help to decrease the risk of psychosocial stress related diseases, decrease blood pressure and pulse rate, decrease adrenaline and stress hormone cortisol concentrations, decrease sympathetic nerve activity, increase parasympathetic nerve activity. Studies have shown the effects lasting for days afterward and benefiting people with PTSD and ADHD. One sample study used the POMS test (Profile of Mood States) demonstrated that a forest bathing session significantly increased the score for vigor and decreased scores for anxiety, depression and anger.

Morita, E, et al., “Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction. Public Health 2007, 54–63

3. Nature provides opportunities to experience moments of awe that can change a person’s perspective. Seeing the northern lights, the dark night sky filled with the vastness of the stars and milky way, seeing the Rocky Mountains and Grand Canyon, marvelling at the perfection of nature in the patterns of a fern — all have a way of making you feel like a small fragment of an infinite universe. Feeling a sense of awe takes our minds off our personal problems and promotes an increase in cooperation and connection with others. University California Berkley studied the science of awe — the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world, makes us feel like we’re part of something larger, being pulled out of our selves — an important for sense of wellbeing. One particular study found that experiencing awe was the only emotion that predicted significantly lower levels of IL-6 (cytokine IL-6 is a marker for inflammation. Part of the immune system, these signal molecules help heal wounds and fight illness).

Jennifer E. Stellar, Dacher Keltner, “Positive Affect and Markers of Inflammation: Discrete Positive Emotions Predict Lower Levels of Inflammatory Cytokines,” Emotion, vol. 15, no 2 (2015).

It is encouraging to see the practice of forest therapy growing in popularity around the world. Although there is plenty medical research being done on the health benefits, I would like to see more Canadian research, in particular, with Indigenous practices, plant medicine and nature connection as well as more research about our physiological response to extended time immersed in the forest — what I refer to as the superhuman effect. When I left the training after eight days in the forest, my senses were so alive that I saw the most pronounced colours of a rainbow not only across the sky, but in the splash of the water from the cars on the freeway in front of me.

Based on research findings to date, the following can maximize the health benefits of forest therapy:

1. Make the time — you can experience nearby nature whether you live in an urban setting or near a forest. Making time every day to connect with nature can be as simple as sitting by a tree, on your porch or on a trail.

2. Slowing down — stop everything you are doing, sit quietly or walk slowly and notice your environment — what you see, hear, feel and taste. Spend time breathing in and out slowly.

3. Dropping in — with the mind and body still, drop into your senses and quietly observe nature in an embodied contemplative state, a sort of outer-focused form of meditation and time of deep reflection

People who do this two hours/week, for 20 minutes at a time report significantly better health and wellbeing. Science suggests the most efficient drop in cortisol (stress hormone) levels happens between 20–30 minutes. A full two-to-three-hour forest therapy guided walk provides a deeper connection that moves you from dis-connecting from our face paced lives into a time of heightened connection with self, others and the other than human world of the forest environment.

Although the forest is the therapist, a forest therapy guide will open the doors of nature connection by providing a safe and exploratory experience that allows participants to reach new levels of awareness and deep connections with the more than human world.

A forest therapy guide is trained to follow a standard flow that brings together the wisdom of many nature connection models that have their roots in Indigenous wisdom keeper traditions (this light touch version of a vision quest is a practice that has been around for at least 50,000 years of human history)1. The forest therapy practice can move us from an ego-centric way of living to an eco-centric way of thinking — expanding our identity to an individual that is part of and inseparable from our ecosystems and all of life and a realization that we too are nature.

The standard flow sequence for a forest therapy walk includes:

· Pleasures of presence allows participants to become fully present in the moment and to notice what is bringing pleasure through the senses, opening up a gateway of relaxation and joy.

· A slow multi-sensory walk follows to help calibrate the participant’s overall energy to the ambient rhythms, sounds and patterns of the forest and to get oriented to the surroundings.

· Moving into liminal space, the guide offers invitations that bring participants to the space in between, a place when we are leaving the tamed, cultivated world and our daily lives behind into the mystery of what is to come. Liminal space in nature takes us into our bodies and our hearts. It is a restorative, restful time and opens us back up to our Indigenous souls.

· After time spent in the non-ordinary experience of liminal space and time, it is important to come back into our senses in a tea ceremony, sharing gratitude in council and reflecting in group conversation. Sharing in council helps amplify the experience by listening and sharing with the heart.

The health benefits of forest therapy are becoming more recognized as an evidence-based therapy. One of the top eight global wellness trends in 2019 is nature prescriptions also known as “green prescriptions” and is increasingly becoming a treatment modality as preventative medicine for mental and physical health. Canada’s first nature prescription program is B.C. Park Foundation’s PaRx is supported by B.C. Family Doctors and the Nurses and Nurse Practitioners. In B.C. any licensed health-care professional can sign up for PaRx and receive instructions, green prescribing tips and practical online resources. They are currently offering a free program for COVID front line workers. In July 2020 the U.K., the National Health System invested $7 million in a green prescription program as part of its post-COVID recovery plan. The World Health Organization published a report in 2017 summarizing evidence of the health benefits, pathways to health and importance of green space.2

In today’s stressful society, forest therapy and other nature therapies are the most practical way to not only reduce stress levels and increase relaxation but also to reduce the strain on our healthcare system, reconnect humans with nature to heal our planet and ourselves. There is a beautiful reciprocity and gratitude that emerges as we begin to rekindle our relationship with nature and the other than human world which has been understood in the ancient ways of the Indigenous people.

“We need to fully understand that the earth is a living entity.

We see that when we are on the land, our senses are heightened.

The gift of eyesight sees the beauty of nature and it stays in your heart forever.

You never forget the smell of the land again — the sweet smell that never leaves you.

You hear the songs of the birds singing in celebration of the beauty of that is all of creation.

You feel the soft breeze touch your skin, the first sign your ancestors are close by.

The world is in need of a new thought. A new plan. A new vision.

And it begins by returning to the spirit and the land.

There is no greater way to show appreciation than gratitude to the great spirit than by loving the land and returning the love the land is giving to us.

The cure for all our symptoms is reconnecting to the land.

We must take the youth to the land to find their identify and to learn the ancestral ways of stewardship based on these inclusive values, the spiritual and natural laws.

It’s not just about going to the land. It’s about rekindling the natural relations with the land.

Going to the land rekindles the spiritual part of our nature and our true identity as humanity”.

Elder Dr. Dave Courchene, Turtle Lodge (2021) Going Beyond the Land Acknowledgement

1. Foster, S and Little, M (1983) Lost Borders: Coming of Age in the Wilderness. California: Lost Borders Press

2. World Health Organization (2017) Urban green space interventions and health: A review of impacts and effectiveness

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