Dirt Therapy: Healing Spaces—Why We Feel Better Among the Trees

Dirt Therapy is a regular column in the Capistrano Dispatch written by GNTG founder, Marianne Taylor

“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”—Robert Louis Stevenson

We are a product of nature; through thousands of years of adaptation and endless interactions with the natural environment, we are intrinsically linked to a relationship with nature. A body of research is mounting regarding the positive effects of contact with nature on our physical, emotional and mental well-being. Think tree therapy.

Breathe, relax, wander, touch, listen and heal—welcome to forest bathing. Introduced in 1982 as a prescient move by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, encourages people to visit and spend time in the forest. Current studies and research suggests spending time outdoors and in forests makes us healthier by supporting increased cerebral blood flow, strengthening immune defense and decreasing stress levels.

Studies also show that spending time around trees, or just looking at trees, lowers blood pressure, reduces anxiety and depression and naturally gives us an overall feeling of calm. How does this work?

According to studies cited in an article by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, when we breathe in fresh air, we breathe in phytoncides—airborne chemicals that plants emit to protect themselves from rotting and insects.

The article, “Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health,” states:

“Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities, which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. In one study, increased NK activity from a three-day, two-night forest-bathing trip lasted for more than 30 days. Japanese researchers are currently exploring whether exposure to forests can help prevent certain kinds of cancer.”

Spending time in nature helps us focus. Nurturing and caring for a garden allows us to slow down, focus better and renew our ability to be patient. We are busier than ever with technological advancement and the demands of jobs, family and school. Keeping up with life is sometimes hard to do, but a regular walk in the park or garden will calm the spirit and reduce anxiety and stress.

Studies have also shown that children who spend time in natural outdoor environments have a reduction of fatigue and behavioral outbursts and have better focus. School recess couldn’t be more important—studies show juvenile diabetes rates drop when children spend less time on computers and watching TV and take to the great outdoors. It’s hard not to burn calories when you’re running around in nature—maybe that’s why our moms kicked us outside when we were acting up inside the house. Running around outside burns calories, reduces stress and lowers cortisol, which is the culprit in diabetes.

 Get your shoes on and come for a walk at Los Rios Park; bring the kids and dog and enjoy the sights and sounds of songbirds and Monarch butterflies. Take a seat at a park bench and breathe in the phytoncides of the old oak and sycamore trees. Better yet, get into the dirt and become a garden volunteer at the Los Rios Park. We meet every Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Watch your stress melt away and the smile on your face grow.

Want a longer walk with winding trails? Visit Reata Park and Event Center with numerous trails and California native gardens. Breathe, sit, ponder and daydream under the massive oaks, California peppers and sycamores.

Want to get involved? We’re looking for weekly docents to share this experience of local tree bathing—connecting community with nature while benefiting your well-being. Not a bad tradeoff. For more information, visit www.goinnative.net.

Goin Native Therapeutic Gardens is a 501(c)(3) teaching gardening and life skills as a way of empowering, engaging and connecting people through special outreach programs. Goin Native focuses on educating local families, special needs adults, seniors, at-risk youth and members of the military.