Stressed? Scientists suggest nature bathing. And no, it doesn’t involve sitting in a bathtub outside — although that might work, too!
Nature bathing is an activity developed in the 1980s, originally in Japan, but increasingly promoted around the world. Called “Shinrinyoku” in Japanese, nature bathing is the practice of spending time outdoors with the goal of relaxing. While it may seem like common sense that spending time out in the fresh air improves one’s mood, there’s also been surprisingly extensive research on the topic showing just how beneficial nature can be.
In 2007, a research team spread across the world from Osaka, Japan, to Palo Alto, California, studied the effects of spending a couple hours a day in a forest or field. People in the study slowly walked around outside, taking in the sights, sounds and scents of the plants and wildlife around them. There were some pretty incredible results: Everyone’s levels of adrenaline and cortisol — hormones linked to stress — decreased dramatically over the three-day study. It was also discovered that the time in nature improved everyone’s immune systems, too. An important type of white blood cell, called the natural killer cell, which stops viruses from attacking our bodies and even stops tumors from growing, increased in number over the three days as well. Not only were the participants less stressed, but also they were a lot healthier, simply from being in the great outdoors.
A few years later, researcher Agnes van den Berg in Holland wanted to know: Can there still be benefits even if you can’t spend hours every day in nature? She looked at health and stress levels of 4,600 people over two years. She discovered that even when stressful events happened, if people had nature — a field, park or even just some trees — near them, they reported less anxiety than people who did not have greenery nearby. This was true regardless of how much time was actually spent outside. She realized it was the ability to access the outdoors that made the biggest difference, not the amount of time spent there. The overall health of people who had more access to nature was better, too — and they were happier, had better social skills and even felt more satisfaction with life.
What is it about being surrounded by the elements and growing things that makes us feel better? Top minds in the fields of ecology, biology and environmental science believe that because humans spent their time in wild, natural environments before modern civilization, we are hardwired to react positively to natural settings. Basically, nature feels, well, natural to us, even though we no longer sleep under the stars or spend days hunting and gathering outside. There’s still enough of the ancient human in us that we find interacting with the natural world restorative.
But what if we live in urban areas with limited access to forests, or even parks? What if we spend most of our days inside, away from daylight and fresh air? Even in those circumstances, there’s good news.
When following up with participants of nature benefit studies, researchers found that decreased stress and improved health following time spent in nature lasts up to a month. Even if you only get outside occasionally, you’ll still be feeling better than if you weren’t able to at all. And if you can’t get to a non-urban area, spending time near a tree or a flower and appreciating its shape and smell can have similarly good results. And if you can’t get outside at all? There’s good news there, too.
As far back as the 1960s, Washington State University researchers have showed that plants inside our homes and offices decrease stress levels and lower blood pressure. So, getting a plant from the nursery or picking flowers to display inside can do a lot to improve your mental and physical health. And if you can’t have plants inside, then natural scents can reduce anxiety and strengthen the immune system, especially those from citrus fruits, pine trees and roses. Many stores sell natural oils in those specific scents to dispense indoors.
And if you aren’t able to go outside, and can’t have plants or natural oils inside, guess what? There’s still good news. Simply looking at pictures or listening to sounds from nature can have many of the same benefits. And it doesn’t have to be for a long time, either: A recent study from Australia found that looking at a picture of a field of flowers for only 40 seconds made people feel better and focus better, too. If you have a computer, you can pull up a picture of a garden and look at it for a minute or two, or find a recording of chirping crickets or waves on a beach on YouTube. And if access to a computer isn’t possible, finding a picture of mountains or an ocean in a book or magazine and spending a little time appreciating it can have many of the same benefits. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?
It’s not just adults who gain big rewards from exposure to nature. Spending time outside around plants and wild areas has all the same benefits of lowering stress and improving the immune system for kids. Experiencing nature may actually be even more advantageous for children, researchers in Spain have found. Kids who have green areas near their homes or schools, they discovered, learn better and have better self-control. Additional research out of Denmark shows that children who are regularly exposed to nature are 55% less likely to develop mental illnesses than children who are not.
All to say, the next time you have a free minute, indulge in some nature — whether it’s walking through a forest or looking at a picture of a fern — and know that taking a few moments to appreciate the natural world will make you less stressed, healthier and happier. A little nature bath can dramatically improve your life!
Leah Sheppard has a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing and is a registered nurse.
Real Change acknowledges our work is conducted on the traditional land of the Duwamish People, and we honor with gratitude their past, present and future work, as well as the land itself.
Read more of the May 12-18, 2021 issue.