Forest Therapy

In the chaos and rush of the modern world, do you feel stressed, tired, and disconnected? Do you experience racing thoughts, feel “on edge” to meet the demands of a deadline, or yearn for a break? If so, forest therapy is for you! Forest therapy is found to reduce the production of cortisol, a stress hormone.

Do you experience depression or anxiety?

Forest therapy can help. It is clinically supported to improve cognition and mood.

Do you struggle to concentrate or pay attention?

Forest therapy is shown to improve directed attention and boost executive functioning skills.

Do you love the outdoors, but have limitations due to mobility challenges or a significant health issue?

Yes, forest therapy is for you, too. Unlike hiking, forest therapy is a slow walk, generally in an accessible area, which makes it suitable for various populations. Forest therapy can even be done remotely, only requiring access to a window.

Do you want to improve your physical health?

Forest therapy is evidenced to lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, boost immune system function, and even combat cells associated with cancer risk.

And finally… do you want to try forest therapy, but fear the possibility of injury, illness, or accident?

All forest therapy guides (or “guides”) are required to be certified in Wilderness First Aid and Infant/Child/Adult CPR, at minimum. They also have training in herbalism, thus can teach you of edible and medicinal plants.

At Suffolk Family Therapy, we proudly have a certified forest therapy guide through the world’s leading school on the topic — Valerie Smith, LMSW. Join Valerie in experiencing simple yet powerful techniques to help you feel whole and well again, while celebrating our kinship with the earth. Mindful and bodyful practices that bring about serenity and can foster a newfound awakening for what is most significant to you. Valerie will lead you through sensory encounters which allow for care, compassion, and connection toward yourself and all other beings in this world.

What is a Forest Therapy Walk?

A forest therapy walk (hereon also referred to as forest therapy for simplicity purposes), is a platform for fostering wellness, healing, and wholeness through engagement in natural settings. Forest therapy is inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”), but they are not synonymous concepts.

Research indicates forest bathing carries a myriad of health advantages in the immune and cardiovascular systems, as well as psychological benefits such as mood improvement. From this foundation, forest bathing seeks to move beyond the health benefits alone and to instead celebrate that humankind is in kinship with nature, not above or separate from it.

Forest therapy is a practice; a gateway to allow a relationship of reciprocity to develop and strengthen, whereby the guide and forest (or other setting) partner together to allow for both to feel complete. The guide is useful in that they can navigate the participants through a particular sequence of events that provide a foundation for the experience. However, there are no set expectations of what should or could happen – participants are given freedom to interpret the experiences as they desire.

Forest therapy is about creating relationships between humans and the more-than-human world, in which the relationship itself becomes a source of healing and joyful well-being. Besides being a deeply healing practice, Forest Therapy is also an emerging community of friends and activists who are making a global impact. As we learn to love the forests, this connection leads naturally to an ethic of tenderness and reciprocity, we become more engaged in working for their well-being.

Most importantly, such walks are focused on the heart rather than the brain, and they celebrate the significance of the kinship between humans and nature. Forest therapy walks are effective, non-prescriptive, and simple, which encourages each participant to have the experience on their own terms and to bring meaning to it all on their own accord, rather than expecting the participant to feel or think a certain way. As a result, forest therapy should never be mistaken for psychotherapy, which is about the treatment of a diagnosis and/or life issue.

Ultimately, the aim for all forest therapy guides is to serve as the “doorway” between humans and other beings, in which the relationship becomes the source of healing and serenity. And so by having a reciprocal relationship with the more-than-human world, we all benefit in increased connection and wellbeing — from the smallest mushroom to the grandest of trees.

“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” – John Muir

Forest Therapy is Not…

Forest therapy should not be confused with hiking. When a person hikes, they tend to have a set destination in mind. They want to ascend to the summit of the mountain, reach that hidden beach, or traverse that one crevice at the top of the mesa. Hiking also tends to be a timed event, with people competing against each other for the newest record.

Forest therapy is different because it uses the aspects of nature in a way that amplifies our senses to let us know the forest in a new way. For one, a forest therapy walk is slow and usually is restricted to a small area. A walk can last for up to 3 hours and the entire experience can be held in a few acres. Furthermore, beings are not things to be passed by on by, but rather to be recognized and explored. Beings are not only organisms, such as the birds and the plants, but also include abiotic entities such as rocks, sunshine, and weather.

Thus, it is more appropriate to think of such forest therapy walks as sensory immersions to foster mindfulness and body-fulness in a natural setting. Whereas mindfulness is about awareness of the present moment without judgment, body-fulness is for harboring that awareness through the senses and experiences within the body. The immersion is done through a sequence of invitations (activities) that participants are allowed to adapt if needed.

Finally, forest therapy should never be mistaken for psychotherapy, which is about the treatment of a diagnosis and/or life issue.

Health Benefits of Forest Therapy

As was previously stated, forest therapy is inspired by shinrin-yoku.

Shinrin-yoku is a wellness practice that came from Japan in the 1980s by the Ministry of Health to promote improved health across the urbanized, changing population. At the time, Japan was transforming into a technological leader, which the government noted was resulting in diseases related to sedentary lifestyles and chronic stress.

Over the next two decades, Japanese research has showcased the myriad health benefits of forest bathing. These include, but are not limited to:

• Lower stress
• Reduce blood pressure
• Improve metabolic and cardiovascular health
• Weight loss/weight management
• Lower blood sugar levels Improve memory and concentration
• Improve mood disorders, especially depression
• Increase pain tolerance
• Boost energy
• Improve the immune system with an increase in natural killer (NK) cells

In more recent years, research across the United States and the United Kingdom has supported the association between time spent in nature and directed attention. Directed attention is one of the primary functions of the frontal lobe in the brain, which is also in control of other executive functions like critical thinking and problem-solving. The stressors of modern living burden us with attention demands that are more exhausting versus that of mankind in the past. This is a reason why we may “space out” when trying to complete a task, feel sluggish, or struggle to concentrate. Much like a computer needs to be rebooted when it freezes, so too, do our brains.

Fortunately, through immersion in nature, the executive functions of our brains are allowed to rest and become replenished. This results in improved directed attention later. In addition, nature experiences offer other psychological benefits such as overall improvement in mood, including in people with depressive disorders.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, ongoing research from Nippon University suggests that phytoncides, the chemicals found within conifers and some other plants, may be effective in cancer prevention. When breathed in, the phytoncides fight infection while also increasing the number of NK cells, which increase anti-cancer proteins.

For more information on the health benefits of shinrin-yoku, along with links to the studies to support the research, please click here.

Want a Forest Therapy Walk?

Valerie Smith hosts forest therapy walks throughout Suffolk and Nassau. These walks are open to the public; thus, you do not need to be a client at Suffolk Family Therapy to participate. Bring your friends and family!
Please note: All walks require prior registration, payment, and completion of paperwork. Valerie cannot accommodate “walk-ins”.
To learn more and/or to arrange a walk, contact valerie.smith@suffolkfamilytherapy.com.

Valerie on a forest therapy walk.

Valerie Smith, LMSW