Driving in Boston. Your job and mortgage. The recent elections. There are innumerable sources of stress for most of us, but for our own health and sanity it’s important to try to de-stress on a regular basis. Fortunately, spending time with trees is a proven way to reduce stress and feel better.

Walking or resting under trees can reduce stress levels.
Senescing katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) leaves emit a smell often described as burnt sugar or cotton candy.
Leave your digital devices at home and walk through the woods listening for bird song.

ore and more research shows that connecting with nature has measurable psychological and physical benefits. In Japan, the practice of “forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku, formalized as a term in the 1980s but with centuries-old roots) is an accepted part of the health care system. Requiring no soap, forest bathing is perhaps better understood by an alternate translation, “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Forest bathers are encouraged to open up all of their senses while ambling or just plain lounging in the woods. Studies have shown that forest bathing can lower salivary cortisol (a stress hormone) levels, blood pressure, and heart rate, as well as providing other health benefits.

Beyond just looking at beautiful trees, taking in the scents of nature adds to the relaxation felt on a walk in the woods. Some forest bathing advocates suggest specifically that it is the inhaling of certain volatile compounds from plants, especially trees, that provides the beneficial effect, though more research is needed. Casual aromatherapy is still abundantly available at the Arboretum in autumn: look for (and sniff) the not-so-showy but intriguingly fruity/spicy-scented golden blossoms of common witch-hazel [pdf] (Hamamelis virginiana), breathe in the burnt sugar smell of falling katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) leaves, or sit in the Conifer Collection on a still, sunny day and enjoy the resiny fragrance of pines (Pinus spp.), spruces (Picea spp.), and firs (Abies spp.).

And don’t forget the auditory pleasures of a fall walk in the woods. There are birds singing and squirrels chattering, there’s a timeless joy in scrunching through piles of dry leaves, and even when branches are bare there’s music when the wind moves through twigs or rattles the seed-holding capsules of goldenrain tree [pdf] (Koelreuteria paniculata) or bladdernut (Staphylea trifoliata).

So put down your digital devices, walk into the Arboretum or the nearest park, nature preserve, or forest you can find, breathe deeply, and find hope in nature.