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Forest therapy sessions help heal the healer

Inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” forest therapy is a guided outdoor healing practice that is now available to Brigham medicine residents and members of the Department of Medicine thanks to an initiative spearheaded by Internist Susan Abookire, MD, MPH, FACP.

“Unlike a hike or guided nature walk aimed at identifying trees or birds, forest therapy relies on trained guides, who set a deliberately slow pace and invite people to experience the pleasures of nature through all of their senses,” explains Dr. Abookire. “It encourages people to be present in the body, enjoying the sensation of being alive and deriving profound benefits from the relationship between ourselves and the rest of the natural world.”

Knowing her colleagues face tremendous stress in the hospital environment, Dr. Abookire began offering forest therapy sessions in the Arnold Arboretum to medical residents with support from Joel Katz, MD, Director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program. The program has expanded to include offerings for faculty in the Department of Medicine as part of an initiative run by the Department of Medicine’s wellbeing project co-sponsored by Nancy Shadick, MD, MPH, Director of Faculty Wellbeing, with support by the BWPO.

The health benefits are numerous, and include physiological, psychological and cognitive performance benefits. “Stress can raise the level of the hormone cortisol. Long-term stress and chronic elevations in cortisol play a role in high blood pressure, heart disease, headaches and many other ailments. But studies show levels of cortisol may decrease after a walk in the forest,” Dr. Abookire says. “And you don’t need to spend all that much time in nature to reap the benefits, just 20 minutes a day can make a big difference.”

Those who have participated in Dr. Abookire’s forest therapy sessions agree. “The experience of forest therapy reduced my acute stress, but more importantly, it awakened my spirit and I left feeling more focused and invigorated,” says one faculty member after a recent forest therapy experience.

It has also been very well received by the medical residents. One says, “I found it refreshing, relaxing and thought-provoking and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience!” Another says, “After the walk, I felt more relaxed, full of new ideas and memories, more connected to the landscape and happier.” And another claims, “You don’t know you need this, but you do.”

The benefits go beyond health and wellbeing. Dr. Abookire has developed a program based on forest therapy sessions to teach leadership and systems, and to build community. “For our colleagues, the benefits to time spent in nature are wide reaching,” she says. “Those benefits can translate to patients and other staff in the hospital. I hope we can continue to expand the program in the near future so that others may benefit.”

Interested in joining one of Dr. Abookire’s forest therapy sessions? Email Sujata Ayala for more information.

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