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  • Frank DiGiovanni

Bathing without water

Have you ever bathed without using water? No? Let’s discuss, shall we?


As COVID-19 continues to rage across the globe, our stress levels remain high. I am someone with direct access to a mental health expert (a psychotherapist who is an LCSW-R or Supervised Experience Licensed Clinical Social Worker, with 15+ years of experience helping people with various moderate-to severe mental health issues and a private practice for “normal” folks like you and I). So I am keenly aware of the stresses that people are going through from both “sides” of the therapist's chair. From my own experiences with therapy during COVID and what limited information I've gleaned regarding clients’ journeys, now more than ever it is vital we make time for ourselves to help keep our mental health as healthy as possible, all while keeping our physical health in top form. One of those ways is to simply go for a walk/hike outside.


We all know the benefits of going for a walk if we’re upset, or the good feeling after taking a hike but there is a term for it in Japan. The Japanese term is: Shinrin-yoku (Shin-RIN Yo-koo). This phrase translates to "Forest Bathing" and is the simple and therapeutic act of spending time in a forest. So, let’s go for a virtual walk together; I’ll be as descriptive as I can, and you enjoy the “walk” with me. (I encourage you to follow the links below to get a true sense of the birds that will be mentioned.)


It is a cool, but sunny day. A slight breeze ruffles the remaining leaves on the trees as you walk along the path of Leeds Pond. Your shoes crunch the fallen leaves, occasionally snapping a small twig that’s been blown off the trees. The fallen leaves start to decay as well as the sugars within them, along with the many organic compounds in the leaf breaking down, creating the classic musky-sweet smell many of us enjoy. As you crunch down the path and to your left, you hear the unmistakable sound of a Crow quarking, reminding you the days continue to get shorter and colder. You find our firepit and have a seat on the logs, taking in the smells around you. A large flock of Common Grackle furiously chirp in a tree, and nearby a squirrel rustles through the leaf litter looking to build his stash for the coming winter. An odor catches your nose and suddenly you’re remembering that time with your family and you can’t help but smile. Your stop, now over, leads you up and along the stream trail where things are as quiet on Leeds Pond as they can get. You (surprisingly?) hear only animals, your breathing and footsteps so you stop again, close your eyes and just breath, taking in the nature around you. Now suddenly, all seems at peace. Stopping and thinking your heart rate has slowed, as has your breathing rate. Refreshed further, you continue this path and find yourself next to the stream that runs through Leeds Pond and it’s babbling brings you to the end of your walk as you find yourself peaceful and content. As you get back to your car, you realize your stress level has noticeably decreased.

If my words have helped paint a picture, hopefully you’re feeling somewhat more relaxed, but the real benefit comes from when you actually TAKE that walk through and around the grounds here at SMLI or another park. The term “Shinrin-yoku” was devised by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in 1982, and can be defined as contacting and taking in the atmosphere of the forest. For the last 10-plus months, we’ve been understandably, stayed inside, and away from nature. According to the New York State Parks & Historic Sites’ website (NYSPHS) “The basic idea in Shinrin-yoku is to observe and experience natural surroundings with a slowed and deliberate focus, rather than treating a hike as a distance between two points to covered briskly in competition with whatever else pops into one’s head.”


Too often, COVID or not, we have things that are doing their best to keep our attention away from nature and I am as equally guilty of this. Cell phones, tablets, video games, television, all keep us plugged in and inside. However, it is the benefits of the great outdoors that are being lost from this continued tendency to stay indoors. Again, the NYSPHS website lends information: For example, this 2010 study in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, based on field experiments with 280 people across 24 different forest and urban locations in Japan, found “forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol (the so-called “fight or flight” stress hormone), lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments … The results of the field experiments also provide a platform for interested enterprises, universities, and local governments to promote the effective use of forest resources in stress management, health promotion, rehabilitation, and the prevention of disease.”


Shinrin-yoku images from Dingmans Falls in Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania.

Courtesy of author


Study after study shows how this “bathing” helps body and mind and the attendance at New York State (and county parks) shows this. Despite the pandemic, people continue to flock to the parks looking for this natural form of de-stressing, the NYSPHS website even states that despite the decrease in density allowed in parks, attendance is only down 2% from 2019! And a lack of nature-connection can even lead to something called “Nature Deficit Disorder”.


Nature-deficit disorder is the idea that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, and the belief that this change results in a wide range of behavioral problems. This disorder is not recognized in any of the medical manuals for mental disorders, such as the ICD-10 (the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th revision) or the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition), but circumstantial evidence suggests it is something worth paying attention to. Author Richard Louv claims that causes for Nature-deficit disorder include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of electronic devices. As a former in-classroom elementary teacher and current teacher here at SMLI, I can attest that there seems to be more of a draw to those screens regardless of size, than to the outdoors. And while Nature Deficit Disorder is unrecognized by medical and research communities, anecdotal evidence can be seen in the children in your life. But it isn’t JUST the kids choosing to stay inside. Parents. Yes, parents are partially to blame for this as many “don’t want their kids getting dirty” or “want to keep them safe”. Dr. Rhonda Clements, of Manhattanville College, surveyed 800 mothers who grew up in the 2000s and asked about how much time they spent in nature as children; 76% of the mothers said they were outdoors every day Monday-Sunday, but when the same question was asked about their children only 26% said their children spent time outside every day (Clements, 2004).


This can lead to children feeling “bored” while outside for even a few minutes (which I have seen first hand) or having less respect for the nature that is around them, even theories that children who don't get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems. Whatever the result, the good thing is that something can be done about it.


Parents, don’t be afraid to let your kids go outside and stay outside for a few hours. My mom was well known for sending my sister and I outside, especially during the summer, for hours; not “letting” us back in until lunchtime or when the streetlights came on (in which case you KNEW it was time to go home). Let them get dirty -my parents once gave me, my sister and two friends shovels and let us loose in the backyard to dig a hole as big as we wanted before filling it with water to make a mudpit!- go for a hike and leave the phones/devices in the car. Start young and your children will gain a love for nature as well as enjoying a little screen time now and then.


If you want more reading, please check out the links within this post or the CBC’s article on The science behind the smell of fall, Time.com’s article on Forest Bathing or the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs’ website.