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Forest bathing: The free cure for stress and anxiety?

Why I tried it, and how you can too.

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Caroline Roberts/CNET

What if I told you that kicking off your shoes and spending just a few minutes in nature could lower your stress and blood pressure? You don't need any fancy equipment, medication or confusing techniques. Forest bathing is a simple way to de-stress, find calm and improve your overall health. The best part? It actually works.

It's no secret that in today's world, stress is a growing problem. In 2017, a Gallup poll reported that the world's population is more stressed, angry, sad and in pain than ever. A lack of clean drinking water, food insecurity and widespread illness wreaks havoc on the health of populations worldwide. Furthermore, people in every pocket of the globe can find something to worry about -- personal relationships, looming deadlines at work and the health of loved ones are just a few of the many things that make us fret everyday.

Personally, I can thank my lucky stars that I don't have anything major to be stressed about, but I still often find myself anxious. In between classes, work, and trying to write the next great American novel, I've got a lot on my plate, and I know you all do, too. In today's world, we're constantly staring at screens, and it isn't helping our mental health. A lot of the de-stressing solutions that have been popping up -- meditation apps, improved sleep tracking and online workout subscriptions -- can work extremely well, but on some level they're just adding more technology to our lives.

I've been reading about a growing phenomenon called forest bathing for a while now, and I decided to try it out.  I meditate for 10 minutes every day and usually fit in a good amount of exercise, but I still feel the grip of stress almost every day. I was hoping that forest bathing would give me a greater sense of calm. I'm also continually working on my ability to let stressful thoughts go without hanging on to them, and I thought that spending a few hours unplugged in nature would help with this relaxed state of mind.

Contrary to what the name might suggest, forest bathing doesn't involve taking off all of your clothes and swimming around in some pine needles. It's a Japanese practice of nature therapy, used to help people de-stress and take a break from technology. I ended up loving my time experimenting with forest bathing, and I hope you can take the lessons of the research, my personal experience, and the rich history of forest bathing to implement more nature therapy in your own life.

What is forest bathing?

In the early 1980s, the Japanese government noticed some growing issues with their population. High suicide rates, social isolation and over-reliance on technology were hurting the people's well-being.  Seventy percent of Japan is forested, and the government took to the trees to find a solution. A public health program called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, was started in 1982.

Forest bathing involves simply going into nature and being present with all five senses. The use and presence of technology is discouraged (turn off your phone!) and many participants forest bathe with bare feet for the full grounding effect. It's not a strenuous hike -- though those are great for you, too -- it's a meandering stroll with frequent breaks to observe what's around you. There's no peak or end goal in sight. Many experts recommend practicing shinrin-yoku for a full two hours, but of course many people fit as much time in the forest as they can, even if that means just 15 minutes.

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Any place with a bit of green is suitable for forest bathing.

Getty Images

Shinrin-yoku began as preventative medicine for the immune system, cardiovascular system, depression and anxiety, inflammation and other prevalent health problems. Since 1982, many researchers have published a wealth of evidence for the benefits of shinrin-yoku, and it has become imperative in the Japanese healthcare system. Today, the healing power of forest bathing is being spread all around the world.

Forest bathing has been shown to lower your heart rate and blood pressure. It has a whole host of positive mood effects, including a reduction in hostility and depression. Forest bathing also decreases fatigue, anxiety and confusion, and generally has a strong relaxing effect. In Japan, increased forest coverage has even been suggested to lower overall mortality rates. I could go on and on -- the point is, overwhelming scientific research backs up the power of forest bathing to help with numerous mental and physical health ailments. 

Turning off my phone and my brain

Despite spending a lot of time outside, and going on some cool backpacking trips, I hadn't really done something quite like this. All of my hiking trips were more goal-focused, and I loved the feeling of accomplishment that came from "completing" a hike or getting to camp. But with forest bathing, the goal isn't to accomplish anything specific or do something strenuous. It's simply to exist in a green area with minimal distractions.

The first time I tried it out, I went all in. I texted a few important people that I would be offline, walked up to my campus's arboretum, turned off my phone and stayed outside in the same patch of lawn and surrounding path for two hours. The first thing I did after dumping my stuff and taking off my shoes and socks was promptly lie down in the grass and close my eyes for a while.

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Life feels a lot easier when you're napping on a grass field.

Caroline Roberts/CNET

After resting in the sun, I got around to strolling across the lawn a few times. I walked slower than I had ever walked before, and on my first loop I made friends with a couple of small salamanders. Later in the afternoon, I had a staring contest with a group of deer from several yards away. I think we were both surprised at how still the other was being. If I had been walking along in my usual hurried fashion, I would have definitely missed these cute creatures.

A few laps of walking the lawn and laying down in the sun later, I was ready to do some more serious thinking. I'm a very goal-oriented person, and I had recently hit some benchmarks that I now needed to reset. My mind was quiet enough for me to decide on what I wanted to focus on next for my fitness and writing pursuits, something I had been too stressed and busy to think about for a few weeks.

Mostly though, the whole time I was there I thought about nothing. And it felt amazing. 

Being barefoot forced me to walk way slower than I naturally would.

Caroline Roberts/ Giphy

The arboretum was surprisingly quiet for a Friday afternoon, but a few people passed by while I was doing my thing. I was nervous when I heard voices approaching, but with everyone I saw we simply smiled at each other and went on with our day. Luckily, no one asked why I was wandering around with my shoes off.

At the end of the first day, I was pretty excited to put my socks back on -- my feet had been getting cold -- but more reluctant to switch on my phone. I felt rested and calm, and I didn't quite want to go back into the busy electronic world. 

The second time I tried it out was pretty similar to the first, though I only had time to stay for an hour. I didn't have any more breakthroughs in personal goal-setting (probably due to lack of time), but I loved just being able to take some time to let my mind go blank.

The last time I went was the only session I did on a weekday, and it definitely changed by mindset. I had a two-hour break between classes that I usually spent trying to knock out some work, but this Monday I was spending it forest bathing.

I'll be honest. I was a little stressed heading back to the arboretum on a typical weekday, and the stress didn't magically disappear as soon as I took my shoes off. As hard as I tried not to, my mind kept rehearsing everything I had to get done throughout the day, even though I wasn't that busy. I kept noticing my jaw clenching -- a classic sign of overthinking for me.

The arboretum was practically empty, and I meandered to some places I'd never been before, like a quaint bridge. I also saw a baby salamander, and it was as cute as can be. I took some time resting my eyes and opening my ears. I had just spent two hours in a classroom right next to a construction site, and the silence of the arboretum was extremely welcome.

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I returned after I was done forest bathing to snap pictures.

Caroline Roberts/CNET

After an hour, I turned my phone back on and continued with my day. I kept checking in with myself— did I feel more calm, more productive, or less hurried?

I soon realized that the answer was a shaky "yes." Sure, my eyes felt better with a break from staring at a screen, and my chest felt a little less tight than usual. But, I only really started to feel calmer once I got back on track with the work I wanted to get done. I headed to class right after, and I did notice something pretty cool— I was noticeably less inclined to secretly check my phone during the lecture. I had proved to myself that, shockingly, I could survive on my college's campus without constantly touching my phone.

Overall, my experience trying out forest bathing was great. The rest was mentally rejuvenating, and I enjoyed wandering a lot more than I thought I would. The one part I kept mulling over was what exactly was helping me feel relaxed -- was it something to do with being barefoot in nature, or was it simply that I wasn't staring at a screen like I spend so much time doing? I decided that ultimately, it doesn't really matter, and it was probably a mixture of both. The grounding aspect of standing in the dirt has been shown to physically reduce stress, but it also just feels nice to escape the constant buzz of notifications for a few hours.

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I'll definitely be back to this beautiful lawn, though I might not be alone.

Caroline Roberts/CNET

Would I do it again? I'm not sure I absolutely loved being alone with nothing to do, but I definitely want to incorporate spending more time outside with my phone turned off. Whether that's having a picnic with friends or bringing a book back to the arboretum, taking some time away from screens is desperately needed in my life.

How to make it work for you

While I think forest bathing is a wonderful thing, I know that it's unrealistic for most people to take several hours out of your workday to unplug. But, if you can find time to try forest bathing on a weekend, you can still reap the benefits.

I know I'm in a pretty lucky situation to be able to find a green space nearby, turn off my phone for two hours and lounge around. If you live in the middle of a city, or have children, forest bathing is a lot harder to pull off. But, you don't have to go whole hog -- even just slipping off your shoes and standing in your front lawn for a few minutes before work can be de-stressing -- or head your backyard if you worried what your neighbors will think If you raise children with a partner or a family member, ask them to watch the kids for an hour while you escape to your local park.

If you'd rather not walk around barefoot, simply spending time outside with your electronics turned off can do wonders for your mental health. Forest bathing was originally designed to benefit public health, and as such you should modify it to best fit your needs.

If you live in an urban area, you may be surprised to find that there's likely open space near you that you can use for forest bathing. Besides just Googling "green space near me," there are several crowd-sourced websites, like Map of Play, to find an open area in your city. If you're still out of luck, try finding a window and sitting with the sun on your face. It might not technically be forest bathing, but if you switch off your mind for a while, I promise you'll feel much better.