If you’re looking to escape stress, lift your mood and boost your immune system, forest bathing could be just what you need.

Forest bathing or ‘shinrin-yoku’ was first developed in Japan in the 1980s. Despite the name you won’t need to pack your swimsuit: it simply means the practice of slowing down and immersing yourself in the forest atmosphere.

Scientific studies conducted by the Japanese government showed that mindful exploration in a forest is good for both physical and mental wellbeing. It is proven to reduce stress hormone production, improve feelings of happiness and free up creativity, as well as lower heart rate and blood pressure, boost the immune system and accelerate recovery from illness.

The goal of forest bathing is to live in the present moment while immersing your senses in the sights and sounds of a natural setting.

Visitors to Minnowburn on the outskirts of Belfast will be able to experience forest bathing in the utmost comfort thanks to the installation of three new forest bathing beds. Funded by Tourism Northern Ireland’s Experiences Development Programme, the benches have been designed by a local company using oak wood and feature quotes from National Trust co-founder Octavia Hill. The beds have been positioned in areas of the forest specially chosen to make the most of the seasonal views and will be moved to different spots throughout the year.

“We are thrilled to have completed the installation of the forest bathing beds at Minnowburn” explains Angie Watson, Experience and Visitor Programming Manager for the National Trust in Belfast.  “As we emerge from a global pandemic and face into a national mental health crisis, allowing people to connect to nature has never been so important. Minnowburn, close to the city centre of Belfast, is the ideal place to invite busy people to step back and reconnect with the natural world.”

Angie continues: “We wanted to take the concept of forest bathing to the next level; inviting participation by creating high quality and beautifully crafted beds which allow people to relax, see the sky from a new perspective, and experience the forest in a completely new way. We hope that the beds will encourage people to simply be still, calm and quiet in the forest, allowing them to observe nature, breathe deeply and relax.”

The benefits of ‘nature therapy’ have also been highlighted by reports recently commissioned by the National Trust. Findings in a YouGov poll earlier this year, revealed nature and time outdoors has continued to be the salvation for many during recent lockdowns. Over two thirds (67 per cent) of all adults either agreed or strongly agreed that spending time noticing nature around them has made them feel happier.  This built on the studies in 2018 by academics at the University of Derby which found that improving a person’s connection with nature led to significant increases in their wellbeing.

While the word “forest” is in the name of this practice you don’t need to drive to your nearest woodland to enjoy the benefits.  A walk in a park, along the coast or in any natural setting is just as good – the key is to be in the moment and bathe your senses in nature.  Breath in slowly and fill up with the clear air. Listen out for birds chirping, the noise of the wind in the trees or the lapping waves. Smell the freshly cut grass or the salty sea air. How long you spend ‘bathing’ in nature is up to you but 15-20 minutes a day is a good target, although even the shortest of time spent in nature has benefits.

The University of Derby’s Professor Miles Richardson’s latest research with the National Trust, published in the International Journal of Wellbeing, showed that connection to and simple engagement with nature brings benefits over and above those derived from simply spending a certain amount of time in nature.

Professor Richardson said: “Moments in nature can help people recover from the stresses and strains of the pandemic. There’s a need for greater public understanding that a close connection with nature is a key component of a worthwhile life, a sustainable life – a good life.”

The National Trust has called for a ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic, and says that planners, policy-makers and NGOs must seize on the opportunity of increased nature connection across the population, given its proven links to people’s health and wellbeing, as the nation starts to resume pre-pandemic habits and lifestyle.

In Northern Ireland the Trust has promised to plant 125,000 trees by 2030 and create new green corridors so more people in urban areas can access nature.

For more information on the National Trust’s Plant a Tree scheme, and to discover how you can you help by donating £5, visit https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/plant-a-tree

Top tips for forest bathing

  • Pick a quieter time of day. There’ll probably be fewer people around if you go to the woods in the early morning if you can.
  • Try turning off your electronic devices. An hour or two of digital detoxing will help you to slow down and focus on your surroundings.
  • Take your time. Wandering slowly through the trees can be very meditative, or you can settle down on a log to really take in your surroundings. If you stay still and quiet enough, you’re also more likely to see wildlife, such as birds and red squirrels.
  • Use all of your senses. When did you last touch a tree trunk and feel the rough bark, or notice the way sunlight catches the leaves, or try to pick out all the different types of birdsong around you?
  • Pay attention to your breathing. This is a great way to relax and clear your mind, so you can focus on what’s around you. Try closing your eyes and taking ten slow, deep breaths in and out, then gently open your eyes and bring your awareness back to the forest.
  • Stay as long as you feel comfortable. Two hours is the recommended time for a forest bathing session, but if you’ve got a busy schedule then even just a few minutes in nature can help you to feel refreshed.