Mental Health Matters: Nic Goddard

A mature copse. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos NO F41 Tree protest 02
Forest bathing is growing in popularity. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos

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With increasing awareness of mental health issues comes increasing ways of improving mental wellbeing.

The term therapy has many of us thinking of sitting on a couch opposite a counsellor
or therapist but for the last couple of years, some GPs have also prescribed nature therapy to patients, particularly to assist with mental health issues.

One such nature therapy that is gaining awareness and popularity is Forest Bathing, or to give it it’s Japanese name where the practice originated shinrin yoku.

Here in Lochaber, we are fortunate to have access to plenty of woodland spaces including the ancient oak woodlands on the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

I joined an online Zoom session on ‘An introduction to Forest Bathing’ led by Hugh Asher of Darach Croft to learn more about it.

I was one of 18 participants attending the free session and due to internet issues at home ended up driving to a spot with a good phone signal so I could join using mobile data.

The irony of hooking up two types of computer technology to learn about disconnecting and immersing myself in nature was not entirely lost on me as the car windows steamed up and I shifted around the steering wheel to balance my laptop.

Hugh explained what Forest Bathing is and how it is a different type of green therapy than just getting outside for fresh air and exercise telling us: ‘Forest bathing is not about goal setting, counting steps or following a set route.

‘It is an exertion free experience where the aim is to reduce your heart rate and slow your breathing. While you are aiming to achieve a meditative feeling there is a difference between forest bathing and other mindfulness activities in that
mindfulness is about taking yourself out of your surroundings while forest bathing is about taking inspiration from and really feeling present in your physical surroundings.’

Forest Bathing does indeed have a long list of both physical and psychological health benefits, including promoting better sleep, reduced heart rate and blood pressure, deeper breathing along with reducing depression, focusing attention, and improving memory.

Getting out into nature has long been recognised as important to our well being, with Hugh explaining: ‘Albert Einstein is quoted as saying he always took a daily walk in nature.’

Aided by a slideshow of wonderful images of forest settings, largely from local woodlands, Hugh then guided us virtually through the elements of a forest bathing session explaining that many people find it useful to engage a forest bathing guide to lead their session or attend a group bath.

Hugh is currently in training with the Forest Therapy Institute to become a certified guide himself.

The main principles of a forest bathing session are leaving behind distractions such as phones or other technology along with any goals or expectations. This includes worries and stresses wherever possible.

Stopping to fully become part of your woodland surroundings and fully engaging all your senses. Slowing down your breathing, closing your eyes to fully listen to the
sounds of the forest, inhaling and smelling the scents, tasting (where safe), and touching the different textures, then taking a closer look at small details such as leaves, tree bark, pine cones. Being still and silent and observing the forest return to life around you as you have stopped being a disturbance can allow you to see and hear wildlife, experience the wind, and feel the movement of nature around you.

Hugh explained that during a group session there would often be a sharing of experiences and noting of what you had been drawn to. Part of the ceremony of a forest bath is to finish with some sustenance of a snack and a drink, if at all possible gathered from the forest itself, such as water boiled from a stream.

Finally, as you leave the forest and return to life, Hugh tells us: ‘you collect your baggage at the end! Picking up your thoughts and worries which hopefully feel much lighter. Often looking back at your path and counting blessings or lessons you have taken.’

Taking questions and feedback from the participants at the end of the session, it was clear that all of us had enjoyed it. My teenage daughter who had come with me for the drive intending to head off for a walk had been lured by Hugh’s gentle voice and ended up staying to watch the whole session.

She is a very keen walker who spends hours every week in woodlands but is usually on a fast-paced mission to cover as much ground as possible. Since the session, she tells me she has slowed down to take in what is around her a lot more often.

As I restarted the car and de-misted the windows to drive home, it was the tops of the nearby trees that reappeared in view first and I have to say they felt as though they may be calling me with wisdom to impart if I stayed a while in their company.

Darach Croft has further Introduction to Forest Bathing sessions planned online and eventual real-life guided Forest Bathing as lockdown eases. Follow them at
www.facebook.com/DarachCroft/ for details.