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Forest therapy is helping wildfire survivors heal their mental health

A program called ecotherapy takes survivors of destructive wildfires on a forest journey to naturally heal their trauma.
Forest therapy is helping wildfire survivors heal their mental health
Posted at 7:41 AM, Apr 21, 2023

On a recent Saturday morning, after one of the area's wettest winters on record, Butte Creek in rural Northern California was flowing. Plenty of greenery was in bloom nearby, and the golden poppies were plentiful. It seemed the land, recently transferred back to the Mechoopda Maidu tribe, was healing itself after being scorched by a major wildfire four years ago.

A group of about a dozen people — decked out in hats, boots or sneakers and carrying Larabars — walked up a light dirt path toward a rocky clearing by the creek.

That day, nature was healing others, too. The group had signed up for a forest therapy walk.

Blake Ellis runs the Chico State University ecotherapy program and has guided dozens of sessions.

"The forest is the therapist; the guide opens the door," she said.

Ellis said ecotherapy, forest therapy and forest bathing are all essentially the same thing. 

The wellness practice was coined back in 1982 when the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries called it "shinrin-yoku," which means "making contact" and taking in the forest for mental wellbeing.

SEE MORE: Scientists find trauma changes the brains of wildfire survivors

"Before we begin, I'd like to invite you to get 10% more comfortable, if that's possible," Ellis said, as the group sat down on the rocks, small stools or blankets she provided.

The practice consists of a handful of 10 to 15-minute guided meditations called invitations. People can choose to participate or pass.

During the invitations, Ellis directs and leads the group in careful detail through all of the senses, such as smelling the air or feeling the sun.

"Maybe letting the blades of grass tickle your hands," she said during a session.

She asks the group to hear what she calls the "symphony." Soon, the initial loudness of the creek gives way to different chirps of birds and whispers of breezes. That Saturday, one participant softly whistled a tune to add his own "instrument."

Between invitations, participants are given the option to venture out and then return to share and reflect with the group how they're feeling. Some wander to look around, and some lie in the sun. Others pick at the sand or rocks, smell the flowers or journal, like Monique Osborne.

"It was just kind of a love note to the space about not feeling lost anymore and how much time has passed and how different the space looks, which means how different I look and how different I am and how I just don't feel lost anymore," Osborne said.

"You feel great," said Greg Melton, another participant. "I just feel totally rejuvenated, and it's always good to be able to reflect a little bit."

SEE MORE: Does climate change make you anxious? You're not alone

Research shows forest bathing impacts the body's cortisol, which is its stress hormone. And studies show that after forest therapy sessions, participants' cortisol levels, pulse rates and blood pressure all dropped.

More research into the long-term impacts needs to be done. The forest walks in this story have not been part of any research project.

The soothing and calming effects also improve the body's parasympathetic nervous system, which is a grouping of nerves throughout the body that impacts how humans are able to rest and digest. They help us relax after going through stressful or scary events.

Kate Scowsmith, like many in the group, said she knows those types of events well. She and her parents lost their homes in the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and burned more than 10,000 homes. 

Scowsmith's job is to connect other fire survivors with aid services. She herself is still waiting to rebuild her home.

She described her forest therapy sessions as profoundly freeing and has even become certified to guide walks.

"Whether it's anxiety or depression, you either kind of withdraw or you get really activated and are kind of in a constant go mode," Scowsmith said. "For me with forest therapy, it was a beautiful opportunity to slow down and realize how hard it is to slow down when you're in that sort of activated state, but how important it is to slow down."

At the end of the walk, Ellis brewed tea with local herbs she picked from the area and her garden as the group gave a toast to the land and each other. Then, with one extra cup:

"From the forest and back to the forest," Melton said, after lifting and throwing the tea over his shoulder.

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