Could a tree be the therapist you need? Right next to the Brisbane suburb of Salisbury (where I practice) lies Toohey Forest – 260 hectares of beautiful bushland nestled in the middle of Australia’s third biggest city - and just right for a bit of forest therapy. So how do trees help to treat common concerns such as worrying too much, feeling overwhelmed or thinking negatively?
Firstly, what is Forest Therapy?
It’s prescribing time in a forest as a way to boost physical and mental wellbeing. It was developed in Japan. For maximum benefit from forest therapy, the forest should be walked through (but it’s not just the walking, participants in studies into forest therapy were shown to have received benefits over and above other people who walked for an equal amount of time in urban environments) but just spending time there is helpful too.
It makes sense that going for a walk in nature helps us to relax and improves our mood – most of us have experienced before this in our day to day lives. But what exactly is going on? How could forest therapy work to improve your mood and lessen the symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety?
So how does it help?
1. It targets all our senses
Walking in nature engages our senses much more than being inside, because the changes in light, temperature, sounds etc. are much more pronounced – it’s an uncontrolled, and uncontrollable, environment. The variation in sensory experience forces you to tune into your body more – and that means less focus is on the unhelpful thoughts in your head.
2. You have to walk
Exercise of any kind boosts our mood in two different ways: exercise helps eliminate stress hormones that contribute to feeling overwhelmed and anxious, and it also releases endorphins – those feel good chemicals that our body produces in order to block out physical pain can block out emotional pain like guilt and feelings of depression too. Walking = exercise = part of the reason forest therapy improves stress, depression and anxiety symptoms.
3. You have to put down your phone
Well, I suppose you don’t have to, but it does make walking a lot harder, particularly where the path is windy and full of small rocks. The break from technology frees your mind from constant information and distraction, giving you a chance to daydream and problem solve. If you can get a new perspective on something that’s being bugging you, you will feel better.
4. Beauty = Gratitude
Seeing something beautiful tends to invoke feelings of gratitude in us as we appreciate the chance to witness it. You can double this feeling if the beauty you experience comes from seeing something a little special in the natural world – a glimpse of a rich, red sunset through the tree tops; the chance to see a kookaburra swoop down and grab a tasty treat from the forest floor. Feeling grateful is a state focussed on what we have, rather than what we lack, and because of this, it’s a great antidote to depressive and anxious thinking because this type of thinking is focused on what is missing, what could go wrong, and what we lack as human beings.
5. It gives you an excuse to connect
Sometimes it’s hard to ring someone up just because we want to talk about our problems. You end up worrying about seeming weak, needy or a burden and so suffer in silence. But inviting a friend for a walk through the forest is much easier. And once you’re out there, it’s only natural to have a chat about how you’ve both been. A natural scene, combined with movement, gives you plenty of places to look other than directly at your friend, making it easier to talk about problems which embarrass you, and if you pick a nice remote forest then the chances of anyone else listening in are slim.
How to use this to improve your mood
Find a forest, call a friend if you’d like, and just walk! This is an easy way to boost your mood that is free and available to almost anyone. If you can’t get to a proper forest, then a tree-filled park will give you some of the same benefits, especially if you can time your walk to encompass a sunrise or a sunset, when birds (and in Brisbane, bats!) are especially active and the changes in light, temperature etc. are most pronounced.
Does your stress, anxiety or depression need more help than the trees can give? Psychological therapy (particularly cognitive behavioural therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy) has been scientifically tested and shown to assist with improving symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety. if you live in Brisbane, call me on 0421 720 635 to book your personal consultation to start feeling better, today. Not in Brisbane? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask about my remote counselling options.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.