Kirsten McEwan

Forest Bathing and research: nature as a personal safe space and a public health tool

Dr Kirsten McEwan is an Associate Professor (PhD) at the University of Derby, UK, who conducted the first UK research evaluating Forest Bathing. She will be also sharing new data about online Forest Bathing with Long Covid patients at the IV International Congress Forests and its Potential for Health.

Kirsten’s childhood is much about being in the woods from dawn to dusk, a place that made her feel safe and accepted. Later in life, that early deep connection with nature led her to shape her brilliant professional career.

Forest Bathing in the UK

“I will be talking about Forest Bathing in the UK, where I conducted the first research in the UK comparing Forest Bathing with an already established psychological intervention called Compassionate Mind Training. Forest bathing has been heavily researched in Japan and Korea, but the control group is usually a walk in city environment and some  researchers would argue this is not a particularly good comparison because the over-stimulation  in the urban environment can be stressful for many people”. 

“We compared Forest Bathing in ancient woodlands with Compassionate Mind Training indoors, and we found that the two were equally effective, which is really good news. Both interventions have targeted the parasympathetic nervous system and increased heart rate variability. We found Forest Bathing increased heart rate variability by 12%, and we found a 29% reduction in anxiety after 2 hours of forest bathing in ancient woodlands. The findings of this study led to forest bathing being supported by the government as a Social Prescription in Surrey, so you can go to a doctor in Surrey and they can prescribe forest bathing. 

“At the Congress I am also going to share some really new data because we had people coming to our walks who had Long Covid, and when we were doing the smell activities they said ‘it’s the first time I can smell anything in a year!’. In this new project, Forest Bathing practitioners who actually have Long Covid themselves are adapting the sessions to deliver them online for people who don’t have mobility or the energy to go outside”. 

“In response to the pandemic I’ve also been working with a mindfulness advocate, Vanessa Potter, to forest bathe with members of the public in urban parks. A lot of our walkers came with anxiety, social anxiety, social isolation, they really missed being around other people during the pandemic, and we saw huge improvements: a 15% increase in heart rate variability, 41% reduction in anxiety, 39% increase in social connection, and nature connection improved by 39%. These are really good results showing that forest bathing doesn’t need to be in ancient woodlands, it can work in urban parks as well”. The project was called ‘ParkBathe’ and we produced a podcast series”. 

The crossroads of mental health and nature

“I thought about changing careers and I applied to do a masters in Ecology, but then I won a research grant with the universities of Sheffield, Derby and Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, to look at improving wellbeing through urban nature. I thought it was a good way to bring together my experience in research on mental health and nature. It was a two-year contract, but it’s 6 years and I’m still working in this research area. 

“I am an Associate Professor of Health and wellbeing and I spend most of my time in research activity. I do some work in Compassion-focused intervention but most of my research is about Forest Bathing. 

“I have been looking into adapting Forest Bathing for children and young people, because there doesn’t seem to be as much research in that area internationally, so I’ve been delivering Forest Bathing sessions to children and young people across London and Derbyshire, seeing what works and what doesn’t. The next step will be to get funding to get more feedback at a larger scale. 

“We need to be working with health economists to get that data and see what the savings-benefit of Forest Bathing is. If you put a price on it, then health and social services are more likely to invest in it”. 

The soothing forest as a safe place

“I was lucky to grow up in a place where we had woodlands within a five-minute walk from home. The woods were somewhere I felt really safe and I could escape any difficulties I was having, so I spent most of my time out in the woods from dawn to dusk. 

“I found it to be incredibly soothing, it was my safe place and somewhere I always felt accepted. I remember at night time being able to hear and see the trees blowing in the wind from the kitchen window, hearing owls calling to each other and all of these things made me feel incredibly safe. 

“As soon as I finished my PhD I moved to Wales – it is really easy to connect to nature there. I really became reconnected to nature and joined several conservation charities, helping to preserve the environment. 

“I do a lot of work on Flat Holm island, a nature reserve where I work with Lesser Black Backed Seagulls, monitoring the breeding population. I think it has just completely reawakened my connection with nature. When you are there surrounded by thousands of birds you feel that sense of smallness. Whatever problems I have are small”.

 

Ph: Courtesy Kirsten McEwan

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