The Wonder of Woodland by Beauty Editor Sara Niven
4th Jul 2017
Forest environments for me have always felt powerfully restorative; the perfect antidote to a build-up of stress and social media bombardment.
During my years working in central London, weekends were often spent heading down the M3 towards Hampshire and more specifically, the New Forest. I love the coastline but popular seaside spots can get crowded and noisy. Woodland areas in contrast are generally tranquil places; softly filtered natural light, shady coolness, the scamper of squirrels rather than the screech of seagulls.
Fast forward a decade or more and the stresses may be different but my solution is the same. I’m fortunate now to live within walking distance of some beautiful wooded areas. When I’m feeling anxious or overloaded, they are still the place I head to get my head in the best place. Sometimes I run, sometimes walk. Sometimes I just find a spot to sit.
It seems it doesn’t really matter. Whilst exercising outdoors has its own advantages, studies worldwide cite the numerous mental and physical benefits of simply being in and around trees. An improved immune system and reduced levels of stress related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are just two. Studies also show that after a trip to a forest people reported lower levels of anger, depression, confusion and fatigue.
Even looking at greenery from a window makes a difference. One US study which focused on patients recovering from surgery found that those in rooms overlooking trees fared better and were able to leave hospital sooner than those with views of a brick wall.
The term Biophilia was first used in the 1960’s to describe our innate attraction to nature. Then in the early 1980’s the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries came up with the term Shinrin-yoku which equates to "forest bathing.” This is encouraged in Japan as part of a healthy lifestyle and clinical psychologist Linda Blair believes it’s a concept which is relevant today for everyone.
“Natural light is a mood booster generally as is moving around outdoors but forests are unique in offering wonderful opportunities to be mindful,” says Linda who writes regularly on mental health topics for The Daily Telegraph.
“From an awareness of the direction you’re heading, to the level of the ground and angle of light coming through the trees, it is hard not to focus on the present moment. One main stressor for many people these days is screening out distractions such as emails and texts to focus on completing goals. In a forest environment, we can let go of these and any distractions consist of natural sounds and sightings which enrich our experience, leaving us calmer and more content.”
Western studies tend to focus on the visual, and to a secondary extent auditory benefits of forest environments. Although the positive effects of beautiful scenery and peaceful environment are also recognised within Shinrin-yoku, there’s an emphasis on smell and the inhalation of health boosting wood essential oils (phytoncides) which have even been studied for anti-cancer properties.
Of course, trees, plants and wooded areas also make a valuable contribution to the environment in the form of clean, oxygenated air. This year Italian architect Stefano Boeri, revealed plans for skyscrapers covered in foliage in Eastern China with the eventual aim of creating a “Forest City.” The striking blueprint of office blocks, homes and hotels covered in shrubbery is aimed at helping counter city pollution. It’s impressive and certainly would be far more uplifting than concrete to look out on. In terms of Shinrin-yoku though perhaps living there would be seen as more of a regular but super speedy “shower” compared to the real thing.
We are incredibly lucky in the New Forest National Park to have some truly beautiful natural woodland and countryside. If it is a while since you took a “Forest Bath” be sure to go and enjoy a wallow the next opportunity you get (no towel required). Your mind and body will thank you for it.
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