There’s been a flurry of attention on forest bathing recently. Originating in Japan, it is the practice of taking a trip into the forest for well-being benefits. Last year we completed a meta-analysis of 11 Japanese research studies into forest bathing, it was published open access in Evolutionary Psychological Science. The paper considered the results in the context of a ‘3 Circles’ model of emotional regulation that helps reveal why immersing oneself in the woods is good for health.
A colleague at Derby, Prof Paul Gilbert OBE, has shown that that both our evolution, and research evidence, can be represented by three dimensions of our emotion regulation system. A simple way to do this is to represent these systems with 3 circles – handily represented here (in original blog post – Ed.) by a falcon, ash tree and wild boar warning! We can experience threat (the boar), drive (the falcon) and contentment (the tree). So, in more detail:
- Drive – positive feelings required to seek out resources, and nowadays achieve success at work or in leisure. It’s about a wanting (that can bring joy and pleasure) as we pursue things (as a falcon does).
- Contentment has an affiliative focus bringing different positive feelings, for example safety, soothing, affection, kindness and a positive calm with the way things are (represented by the ash tree).
- Anxiety – feelings and alerts generated by the threat and self-protection system. Located in the fast-acting amygdala this system can be both activating and inhibiting (represented by the wild boar warning).
Each dimension brings different feelings (such as anxiety, joy, and calm), motivations (avoid, pursue and rest) – releasing various hormones in the body. For wellbeing we need a balance between the three dimensions – happiness and satisfaction comes through balancing threat, drive and contentment. For example, when our threat response is overactive, an unbalance caused by being constantly driven for example, our positive emotions are reduced and we can become anxious or depressed.
Returning to the forest bathing research, we focussed on those studies that measured heart-rate variability – an indicator of activity in the branches of the nervous system that controls the heart. Although these studies found differences in the responses to urban and forest environments they didn’t consider them in the context of emotional regulation – how nature links to emotion, physiology and well-being. Nor did they have compelling explanations for some variety in the results.
The results of the analysis supported the story told by the 3 Circles model. Finding that being in the woods was calming – activating the parasympathetic nervous system associated with contentment. Whereas the urban control environment they used stimulated the sympathetic nervous system associated with drive and threat.
As ever the story is a little more complex. Some people weren’t soothed by the woodland, others were stimulated by it. Again, the 3 circles can help explain this. Some people could experience threat in the woodland, feeling anxious about what lies in the undergrowth – is that a boar rustling? This would cause a spike in sympathetic nervous system activity. Those more in tune with nature could feel joy (rather than calm) at being asked to spend time in the woods – at any time an exciting falcon may fly past! Such joy would also raise activity in the sympathetic nervous system.
Some prior posts here on forest bathing: