Over the last couple of months, I feel like I’ve aged thirty years. Not archaic, but old enough to complain about back pain. Every morning begins like this: my alarm goes off, I frown at how early it is, and then groan as I get out of bed because my entire body feels stiff—suffocated even. I am not unique in this feeling. Being quarantined defies all human instincts; we are meant to socialize, to embrace each other, to wander and to explore. Conserving my sanity in the wake of a pandemic has been difficult. I’ve realized the ways I used to fill my time were merely escapism, bleak attempts to avoid emotions that would have otherwise consumed me to a point of exhaustion. Now, I have no other option but to actively confront myself, and as painful that is, I need to learn to love myself like I would a dear friend.
One of the few ways I’ve maintained my mental health is spending time in the woods. Sometimes, I try to find new trails, but I’m a creature of habit, so I always go back to Brandywine Creek in North Wilmington. The drive there is breathtakingly beautiful—long, winding roads, acres of yellow flowers, and an endless skyline of trees. When I arrive at the creek, I instantly feel better, like my troubles can wait a few hours because the present moment is most important. Two weeks ago on a particularly bad day, I decided to walk the entire trail. I don’t like to run because I don’t want to miss anything. Walking allows me to move through the world delicately and intimately, to breathe slowly and mindfully. That day, color bled back into my life, filling every grey and empty space. I noticed the migraine I had while I was driving subsided significantly, and my lower back was less tense and sore. I became reminiscent of my childhood in Indonesia, where I spent the majority of my time in forests, regularly experiencing their mental, physical, and spiritual benefits.
In Dr. Qing Li’s book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, he explains the scientific reasons for why we feel better in forests. The concept of “forest bathing” refers to the Japanese practice of spending an extended period of time in a forest while engaging all five senses. For example, Dr. Li mentions looking at different shades of green of the trees, dipping your fingers in a stream, and listening to birds singing (121). The purpose is not only to feel better, but also to disconnect from our devices and reconnect to nature. In the beginning of the book, he introduces the “Biophilia Hypothesis,” which is, “the concept that humans have a biological need to connect with nature” (13). Because we evolved in nature, we learned to appreciate the sources of life that helped us survive. Human beings are physiologically attuned to the natural world because we share a deep bond with it.
Phytoncide, an antimicrobial substance emitted from plants, is the reason for forests’ refreshing aroma. Exposure to phytoncides increase “natural killer cell” (NK cell) activity; these cells help strengthen our immune systems and fight off infections. Additionally, phytoncides decrease the level of stress hormones, leading to lower levels of anxiety and increased hours of sleep. Because stress weakens the immune system thus causing frequent sickness, forest bathing allows people to stay physically and mentally healthy for longer amounts of time. These phytoncides are especially crucial for people who already suffer from mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Another beautiful aspect of forest bathing is its openness and flexibility. There are so many ways to engage the senses specifically in a way that is best for the individual person. My favorite “forest bathing “technique” is one Dr. Li actually mentioned, which is to focus only on sound. You start by slowing down and giving yourself time to release your thoughts. Next, you focus on your breath to let go of any distractions, and then you begin listening in all directions with your eyes closed. I usually do this while lying down on a bench. That way, I can be comfortable and hear more intensely. It is then I will be able to hear every rustle, every birdsong, rippling water over stone.
It is evident being nature gives us physical and emotional relief. Truthfully, science is only confirming what we already know and feel. The problem with most human beings, however, and especially in the U.S, is that they have desensitized themselves to their own bodily sensations. Most Americans are so consumed with work, money, and technology, that they have grown numb to their own physiological responses. In order to experience the benefits of the Natural World, we must be cognizant of our internal worlds—we must know how we feel. If we refuse to acknowledge the interconnectedness of our minds, bodies, and souls, we cannot know that we are sick and need to be alleviated of our stress and pain. The key is to be mindful of our bodies, to check in with ourselves as we do with loved ones. I am still learning this myself: the art of being my own friend, asking myself, “how does my body feel today?” so I can know if I am in need of extra support from my fellow living creatures, the vibrant leaves and curious animals who always encourage me to heal.