by Erica Garza
For those who struggle with anxiety — around 18 percent of the U.S. population — spending time in nature can offer scientifically proven relief. Shinrin-Yoku, or the Japanese art of forest bathing, is the practice of taking time to unwind and connect with nature to improve your health. It has been shown to relieve symptoms commonly associated with anxiety, lowering blood pressure, blood glucose levels and stress hormones. One 2017 study of Shinrin-Yoku participants found a “significant decrease” in cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, as well as self-reported reductions in anxiety, depression, and hostility. By combining mindfulness with nature, Shinrin-Yoku can be a natural, accessible and effective method for relieving anxiety, and you don’t have to do much.
Children and Nature
Simply going outside seems easy enough for natural anxiety relief, but many children today miss out on this opportunity to commune with nature. A recent survey suggests that children spend half the time their parents did playing outdoors, and another survey shows that the largest share of free time for children aged 2 to 10 was spent on screen-based activities. Too much screen time has been linked to a host of problems, including poor sleep, which can lead to attention issues and increased anxiety in children.
What to Expect for Your Child
Dr. Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, explains that even a small amount of time in nature can have a dramatic impact on our health. “A two-hour forest bath will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment and de-stress and relax you,” he says. He recommends finding a spot in nature without any phones or electronic devices and just walking slowly and aimlessly, using the five senses to “let nature enter.”
While it may seem like these “directions” will go over your child’s head, Child Mind Institute encourages parents to see the value in unstructured play, as it “allows kids to interact meaningfully with their surroundings.” Parents are encouraged to engage with nature alongside their children and unplug with screens frequently to model this behavior for their children. In nature, children can think more freely, design their own activities to their liking, and approach the world in inventive ways.” Other benefits the institute identified include:
● Exercise: Going outdoors will force a child to get moving, which is not only good for their bodies, but increased focus can be beneficial for kids with anxiety and attention disorders. A study on children with attention disorders, which can often lead to anxiety, found that children were able to concentrate better after a walk in a park.
● Reduced stress and fatigue: Urban environments and increased technology can over-stimulate and exhaust the mind, but spending time in nature encourages “soft fascination” and relief from endless distraction.
● Confidence: When a child struggles with anxiety, they can feel shame and powerlessness. By going outside, they’re able to interact with the outdoor environment in any way they choose, taking this trail or that one, climbing a tree or crossing a river — forging their own path. This can empower children with a sense of control over how they wish to explore.
Ideas to Get Started
If your child struggles with anxiety, consider integrating forest bathing, or another form of nature therapy, into their lives as natural relief of anxiety. Here are some ideas to get started:
● Take a magnifying glass outdoors and examine leaves
● Make a rock collection
● Sit quietly with closed eyes and identify nature sounds
● Hear the leaves crunch under bare feet
● Invite your child to lead you or the family on a path of their choosing
For more ideas on how to experience forest bathing with your child or teen, explore the Shinrin-Yoku website from the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy.
Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles and a mother of one. She holds a master's from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health and VICE.