Green Childhood, Happier Adulthood

forest trees woods

On this Mothers’ Day, I am remembering my mother, now gone 8 years. I believe my childhood might be considered tough by other people’s standards. My father had a serious illness and died much too young. My sister was born with mental and learning issues. We were certainly lower-middle-class. I was forced into adulthood by circumstances at age 11. But my mother was always there, and my overall memory of childhood  – those first 10 years and especially the summers – is of many good days.

Though I lived in a very urban, densely populated town in New Jersey, there were pockets of green in my neighborhood and green places that I could escape to on my bicycle.

From our backyard garden of vegetables and the apple, peach and plum trees, to the front rock garden full of my mother’s flowers, I felt surrounded by nature.

I am convinced that the greenish light, the smells of soil and herbs and flowers, and learning about plants and trees had a powerful effect on my life. Our dog, our rabbits, even the salamanders, turtles and safe snakes that I temporarily had as pets and then released to their real homes made me feel connected to what we later called the “web of life.”

So, I am not surprised when I read articles that confirm that researchers believe that a greener childhood is associated with a happier adulthood.

I have written here before about related topics such as forest bathing and the healing effects of the forest.

Being in my current little garden in the backyard, walking through the nearby smallish woods or a local park with a tiny creek and pond are still ways that I slow down time and immerse in nature.

Of course, I love getting out into a big forest or on a tropical island, but those experiences are out of my ordinary life. And so, I cling to those same islands of green that fascinated me as a child and offered me refuge as a teenager in a troubled home.

park bridge

Green spaces are shrinking. Scientists are still studying the association between green spaces and mental health. I’m glad that research shows that growing up around green (vegetation) is associated with a significantly lower risk of mental health disorders in adulthood. But I knew that.

Other studies seem to indicate that a lack of green space increases the risk of mood disorders and schizophrenia and can even affect cognitive development.

The green of my childhood couldn’t prevent my father’s illness or my sister’s cognitive development, but it helped me. I don’t want to overstate the power of green spaces. One of the scientists in those studies cautions that studies have limitations: and some of the findings are correlational. They can’t definitively say that growing up near green space reduces risk of mental illness.

Many questions remain. Would a forest have more impact than a park? Are positive effects evolutionary or cultural? Can the effects be physiological as well as psychological? Maybe having more green spaces around us simply encourage social interaction and exercise, both of which improve mood. Does a decrease in air, water and noise pollution have a positive impact on mental health?

My non-scientist mother maintained that exposure to the dirt (a wider diversity of microbes) would make me healthier. Mom knew.

The Healing Woods

Last autumn I wrote here about the idea of “forest bathing,” which sounds like it might require getting naked in the woods and some water. It doesn’t.

The practice began in Japan in the early 1990s and was known as Shinrin-yokuwhich translates roughly as forest bathing.

More recently I heard an NPR story about someone who went for a forest bathing adventure on the pocket of forest outside Washington D.C., Theodore Roosevelt Island, on the Potomac River. If that doesn’t sound wild enough that seems to be part of the point of the activity.

You don’t need hundreds of acres of forest or water or miles of trails or a destination. You probably don’t need a certified forest therapy guide either, though some guidance is always helpful.

Forest bathing is about slowing down and becoming immersed in the natural environment. Immersed is a good word. It does mean to plunge into a liquid, but the dictionary also says to involve deeply, absorb and to baptize. In a good forest bath, you would plunge into the smells, textures, tastes and sights of the forest. Touch the tree bark, smell the pine needles, loam or the black walnuts, taste the mulberries.

It is meant to cleanse the mind of the accumulated mental detritus from the outside world.

One of the exercises that might be done in your bath time is the body scan. It is a technique I learned many years ago in a mindfulness workshop. It can be done any place, but in a natural setting it will take on another dimension.

Lie on your back, legs uncrossed, arms relaxed at your sides, eyes open or closed. Focus on your breathing for about two minutes until you start to feel relaxed. Then, turn your focus to the toes of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel while continuing to also focus on your breathing. Imagine each deep breath flowing to your toes. Remain focused on this area for one to two minutes.

Think of this as a guided meditation, though easily self-guided. You move focus to the sole of your right foot, then right ankle, and move up to your calf, knee, thigh, hip, and then repeat the sequence for your left leg.

When I first tried this I was so relaxed by the time I had moved up my torso, through my back, chest and shoulders, that when I tried to focus on my head, scalp and hair, I fell asleep. That is not what is supposed to happen, but it did. I have used the technique to fall asleep on nights when my brain can’t shut down.

A body scan is not a trick. It is a way to shift your focus and train your mind to go where you want it to go. In an age of many distractions, being able to control when you want to let your mind wander (which can be a creative thing) and avoiding drifting into worry and doubt is a powerful ability.

This all sounds very “new age” and a lot of people unfortunately use that term in a disparaging way. They lump together everything from well-documented practices like yoga and meditation to more fringe practices. For example, many people would probably dismiss aromatherapy and yet we all experience emotional responses to aromas in our lives – the smell of baking bread, the scent of herbs you brush against in a garden or the pine forest you walk through.

Forest bathing is being studied as an alternative kind of therapy or medicine. The NPR story I heard said that a 40 minute walk in the forest is associated with improved mood and feelings of health and a real decrease in levels of the stress hormone cortisol .Excess stress can play a role in headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, and arthritis, among many other ailments.

The idea of trying in your day to “Be here, not there” seems so simple, but is so difficult for most of us.

Henry David Thoreau knew that his little Walden woods didn’t need to be very far from Concord to be an escape. I have my own nearby small woods that certainly doesn’t qualify as a forest but allows me to turn off the outside world. It is more than walking or meditating or being mindful in your home, office, or on city streets. Those are all good things to practice, but this is about being in the natural world.



Listen to “A Crash Course in Body Scan Meditation” for a guided body scan.

Learn more about forest therapies at natureandforesttherapy.org. Perhaps you might even become a guide one day.

Forest Bathing

bamboo_forest_arashiyama_kyoto_oliveheartkimchi
Photo by oliveheartkimchi – originally posted to Flickr as Bamboo forest, Arashiyama, Kyoto, CC BY 2.0

 

For your health, you may want to do some “forest bathing.” The term means soaking in the forest atmosphere. It originated nearly 35 years ago in Japan, where it’s known as “shinrin-yoku,” and it’s now catching on in the United States.

As a lover of the beach and ocean, and with 130 miles of Jersey coastline nearby, I have a lifetime of sun and ocean bathing. The way the smell of salt air, feet in the sand and the sound of waves create inner peace, is what is claimed for forest bathing.

Breathe in the pine trees, listen to the birds and water flowing over stones, see the patterns of green or autumn’s palette and how the sunlight changes the scene, feel the textures of trees and plants. Walk barefoot. No nudity or bathing suits required.

Shinrin-yoku practitioners do it for relaxation and rejuvenation. It soothes the mind, but can have real benefits, such as lower blood pressure and a stronger immune system.

Back in the 1980s, Japanese researchers theorized that substances called phytoncides (antimicrobial organic compounds given off by plants) produced the health benefits and relaxation.

You don’t need to be a scientist to know the benefits of time spent in a forest, but researchers do believe that humans are “hard-wired” to need nature in their lives.

One study found that the average concentration of cortisol, a stress hormone found in saliva, was 13.4 percent lower in people who were in a forest setting for just 20 minutes compared to people in urban settings.

Li Qing of Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, conducted experiments to find out if spending time in nature increases the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, a component of the immune system that fights cancer. The study found that NK activity was significantly boosted in two groups that spent time in forests.

You don’t need to take a strenuous hike to practice shinrin-yoku. The practice may not burn lots of calories, so don’t do it as “exercise” alone.

I went for a cool, slightly wet walk today in my local woods. It’s hardly a “forest” but it has birds, wildlife, a small brook and I can go deep enough to not hear the cars and people who surround it. I bathed. I was literally a little wet. I felt better.