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Nature Immersion’s Effect on Mental Health & Immune Function

Nature exposure is an effective strategy for psychological relaxation. Leisure time spent in nature lowers blood pressure and heart rate and eases feelings of anxiety, depression, fatigue, and confusion, while enhancing the feeling of vigor.

Forest bathing, or Shinrin-Yoku in Japanese, is the practice of immersion in nature to experience the atmosphere of the forest for the benefit of mental and physical health. This involves walking slowly through nature, or staying in one space and bringing your awareness to basking all 5 senses in the environment. Forest bathing is a widespread wellness-based leisure activity in many Asian countries with a deep well of research backing it up.

Outside of short-term life-threatening situations, stressful emotions are always connected to events in our past or concerns of our future. Vigor is a state that is only possible when our mind is in the present moment. Vigor is a feeling of being full of energy and enthusiasm, where you feel like you’re relaxed and content, but at the same time could break into a sprint or climb a tree without it feeling like a chore.

Children are a living expression of vigor, but as we become adults, many of us lose touch with this empowered state. Overrun by stress, we only experience glimpses of vigor every now and then when we get really excited. Stressful emotions hold us back from experiencing vigor. If we are anxious about some looming concern, or depressed about some unfortunate past occurrence, vigor will elude us. Vigor comes with a sense of our consciousness being in the present moment. It means we are excited to interface with what we are experiencing right now, right here in front of us.

Forest bathing has an effect on our psyche that seems to draw our awareness into the present. There is so much sensory stimulation to all of our senses at once, that it demands our awareness in a primal way that is hard to overcome without conscious resistance. Forest bathing evokes a mental state similar to deep meditation, without the demanding requirement of concentration and discipline.

Psychological stress has been shown to be a major cause of a large number of physical illnesses, and the benefits of forest bathing to our psychological state infers a benefit to our physiological state through the balancing of our mental stress levels. The lowered levels of adrenaline and dopamine measured in studies after forest bathing sessions are associated with a state of relaxation. Dopamine is an important hormone with a positive effect when balanced, but high levels of it can cause us to weigh negative outcomes more heavily and lead to states of anxiety or over-excitement.

There are other ways that Forest Bathing has been proven to positively affect our physical health, such as by enhancing our immune system function to prevent and fight cancerous tumour growth, and viral infection. Natural Killer cells are special immune cells that target cells under stress such as tumour cells and virus-infected cells. Forest bathing consistently shows results in raising the number of these Natural Killer cells by an average of 50%. In this way, nature exposure greatly enhances our immune system’s capability to prevent and fight cancer and viral infection.

Forest bathing is a practice that has over 50 years of well-funded, high quality research from a number of countries supporting it as a potent necessity for human health, both psychologically and physiologically, and the information shared in this article does not even begin to scratch the surface, drawing information from only a few of the more recent studies. There are so many interesting ways that nature benefits our health; From the general atmosphere, the soundscape, the terpenes released from the trees, the bioenergetic connection of bare feet to the ground, the ion exchange that happens between our bodies and the vegetation, and so much more that we do not yet have the tools to measure.

The benefit we get from regularly spending time in nature is unique and cannot be supplemented. This is an important part of maintaining health and balance. I even feel tension and muscle soreness dissipate after a walk in the woods. If you live near a piece of nature, try and get out there every day for a short walk, or once a week for a longer immersion. If you live in the city, try to walk in a park, try to avoid concrete paths, and make the effort to get out of the city once a month if you can and spend a day in the forest. If you want to do everything you can to improve your health and well-being, this is low hanging fruit, and irreplaceable.

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