Tree Therapy

It's not your imagination. Time spent in the forest is actually good for you.


This year has not been easy. A pandemic. Unprecedented partisan divisions. And now a holiday season, already fraught for many, made more complicated by COVID-related restrictions. Not to mention that the Pacific Northwest is deep in the dark days of winter. None of this bodes well for mental health.

In fact, a recent survey by the National Center for Health Statistics, in partnership with the Census Bureau, indicated that 40% of adults had symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders compared to 11% a year ago. Nonprofit Mental Health America said the number of people seeking help for anxiety and depression nearly doubled in the last year. MHA also said current mental health services can’t meet the need.

The Key Peninsula has an often-unrecognized mental health resource. It won’t solve all problems, but it can help. It is free. It is best utilized in solitude.

It is the trees.

Human history has long acknowledged the importance of trees and nature. Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath a fig tree 2,500 years ago and found enlightenment, becoming the Buddha. In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life — no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair.”

There is evidence for the healing power of trees. Studies over several decades have shown time spent in nature boosts immune system functioning, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves mood, increases the ability to focus, accelerates recovery from surgery or illness, increases energy levels and improves sleep. A 2001 Chicago study showed that apartments surrounded by greenery had 48% less property crime and 56% less violent crime than apartment buildings with no green space.

Some of the benefits may be due to phytoncides, natural chemicals released by trees that have been shown to improve immune function. Walks in the woods decrease stress hormone levels. Researchers compared mood improvement in people who walked in the city with those who walked in nature. Nature walkers fared better.

In Japan, since the 1980s, doctors have written prescriptions for forest bathing, but shinrin-yoku, as it’s called, is more than a walk in the woods. It involves a several-day guided retreat where patients immerse themselves in the forest, taking in the color and light or dark, the smells, the temperature, the sounds and even the feel and taste of the forest.

The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, established in 2012, offers a six-month certification program and has trained more than 800 guides worldwide.

It turns out, though, that the benefits of being in nature don’t require a guide or three days in the forest. Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules, said in a recent interview that even looking at a picture of a tree can have benefit, but walking outside for at least 10 minutes helps lock it in. The benefits, though, are additive — the more time you spend in nature the better.

Dr. Qing Li, a Chinese physician living in Japan, wrote a book about the topic, “Forest Bathing — How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness.” He said, “You can forest-bathe anywhere in the world — wherever there are trees; in hot weather or in cold; in rain, sunshine or snow. You don’t even need a forest. Once you have learned how to do it, you can do shinrin-yoku anywhere — in a nearby park or in your garden. Look for a place where there are trees, and off you go!”

His specific advice is to engage all the senses. Hearing — listen to the sounds of nature around you. Slow down, focus on your breath, close your eyes and listen in all directions for the sounds of water, wind, and birds. Sight — observe the colors, the nature of filtered and dappled light, the natural patterns or fractals from branches, petals and waves. Smell — inhale the smell of trees, especially from aromatic conifers, of the flowers and of the Earth. Taste — notice the freshness as you take deep breaths. Feel — touch a tree trunk or the surrounding moss. The sixth sense, state of mind — simply be mindful and savor each moment in nature.

On the Key Peninsula the opportunities are endless. It might be a driveway, a quiet country road, the trails at Penrose State Park, Maple Hollow Park, Key Central Forest, the trails behind the Longbranch Improvement Club, or even a back yard. It is easy to start, and it’s fine to start in small doses, gradually building on forest immersion five minutes at a time.