Wellness Through Waldeinsamkeit | Why Germans go into Forests Alone to Cure Stress
We tried the tradition of getting lost in the Black Forest - to find ourselves
It feels like dusk at noon. Giant conifers block any semblance of sunlight, and the only life is a smattering of mildew, detritus, and whatever animal is snapping branches.
Roman soldiers feared this darkness, with historian Tacitus documenting the sightings of “horse-eaters,” murderous tribes wearing boar heads, and unicorns. The Grimm Brothers wrote of the Kinderfresser (child-eaters) like those in the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel hidden among this sea of thicket. And, yet, the symbiosis between the Schwarzwald, Germany’s infamous Black Forest, and Germans is eternal. Romantic. Comforting. And most importantly, allows them to enjoy Waldeinsamkeit.
The stereotypically-specific German word, meaning “forest loneliness”, describes a feeling of solitude when alone in the woods, and it has been an essential component in the German psyche since those tribes which scared Tacitus roamed these lands.
The startled legionnaires he describes discovered it among the woodland mineral waters in Baden-Baden; King Wilhelm II, Thai King Chulalongkorn, and innumerable Russian-Jewish intellectuals felt it vacationing among the foothills of the Taunus in Bad Homburg.
“Roman historian Tacitus documented the sightings of “horse-eaters,” murderous tribes wearing boar heads, and unicorns”
Goethe frequented the Thuringian Forest, taking inspiration from the feeling among the spruce and spas around Ilmenau; Mozart found it in the springs in Carlsbad; successive Kaisers made it part of public health policy, and even Hitler insisted on it to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
I’ve come to the Black Forest to experience this Waldeinsamkeit and its Aesculapian powers for myself. This is, after all, the epicentre of the idea, the place where philosopher Martin Heidegger hermitted in a timber-shingle cabin, lost in thought as he overlooked the pastoral landscape. Maybe, like him, I’d experience some semblance of Dasein, his term for “being there, present in the world.”
Baiersbronn is one of Germany’s roughly 300 certified Luftkurorts – places that meet government-approved standards of fresh air and pure water . A town of only 16,000, it boasts the hundreds of miles of hiking and the fresh forest air so many seek. It is also perhaps the most unexpected culinary mecca in the world, with more 3-star Michelin restaurants than in Rome, Los Angeles, or Chicago.
The initial experience of finding some solitude, at least for a city kid like myself, is discomforting. Nothingness is confrontational. You’re left with your thoughts, thoughts about whether there are bears in the woods; thoughts about whether the stinging sensations on my arm are from a nettle or a bee, and, if it were a bee, how long would it take me to die of an allergy. I thought about the rosehip bushes and how many of our forefathers died test-tasting such berries, and I thought about how this forest sustained those same forefathers for thousands more years.
“Goethe found Waldeinsamkeit around Ilmenau; Mozart took it from the springs in Carlsbad; successive Kaisers made it part of public health policy, and even Hitler insisted on it”
These days, German health insurers such as Techniker Krankenkasse see enough value in Waldeinsamkeit as therapy that they’ve been known to pay out for it – normally as part of a Kur (cure, in English), a week or two-week long program of relaxation and rehabilitation aimed at stressed out workers.
Recent data shows just how damaging and debilitating over-stress in the workplace can be. In Great Britain, studies by the Health and Safety Executive show that over a 12.5 million working days were lost in the UK in 2016-2017 due to work-related stress, depression, and anxiety. Roughly 526,000 workers suffer from some type of work-related anxiety. Similarly, in the US, over-stressed workers cost US$150 billion (£114 billion) per year in lost productivity and employers over $600 (£456) per person per year. Of course, Germany isn’t immune to these problems – according to a Gallup poll, burnout is currently on the rise.
To combat this, rehabilitation programs like the Kur focus on a process of therapeutic mindfulness, a concept not unlike Heidegger’s Dasein. Even just a few hours of wandering can reprogram the brain into an almost evolutionary level of awareness. What’s that sound? Is something following me? Why can I taste pine? The near-constant, panicky thoughts about how busy you’ll be on Monday or the time you told your third-grade teacher to spell “pig” backwards slowly dwindle. You’re mindful of this moment, looking at the towering trees or, in my case, sampling a sprig of pine needles.
The term itself, “mindfulness,” is relatively new. Coined just a few decades ago bypsychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn (who described it as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”), it has recently come into vogue in a big way in Britain and the US. In Germany however, the idea is far older.
It has its roots in the 19th century practises of the therapist Sebastian Kneipp, whose methods involved hydrotherapy and forest-bathing (a relaxation technique later adopted and popularized as Shinrin-yoku by the Japanese). His idea was that isolating patients in the forest, and suspending them in water would slow down thought-processing and cultivate attention on the mind and body.
“12.5 million working days were lost in the UK in 2016-2017 due to work-related stress, depression, and anxiety”
“We live in a time of acceleration. You have to do more things in less time and without making any mistakes,” explains Prof. Dr. Alexander Noyon, psychotherapist and Professor at Mannheim University of Applied Sciences, when I speak to him about it over the phone. “Mindfulness teaches to only do one thing at a time, focus really on that one thing, and take the time you need.”
If mindfulness is about eliminating distractions, particularly stressful distractions, then the woods are the perfect place to do it. Out in the forest, I find I can’t turn to my phone or Facebook. I’m forced to acknowledge the anxiety this causes (it can linger for minutes or hours) until finally my brain decides it’s ready to process it, and moves onto something else.
Prof. Dr. Noyon isn’t the only scientist who believes that Waldeinsamkeit works either. One study from Japan noticed that hiking alone in forests helps reduce stress by lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels. When coupled with mindfulness techniques, research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research noted that those who spent time in forests performed intellectual tests more quickly and effectively.
They also felt more relaxed and at ease after forest walks than those who walked in an urban environment. Similarly, a study conducted at Stanford found that those who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area showed decreased activity in the region of the brain associated with depression.
Strolling through the black forest, it’s easy to see why. I don’t (thankfully) encounter any unicorns, horse-eaters, or the boar-headed men of Tacitus’ nightmares. But I do find myself swept up in the sensations of the forest and feeling, as the Russian novelist Turgenev put it, “as if some of its juices runs through [my] veins, which is good and healthy”. After a week of Waldeinsamkeit, I not only find myself less stressed, but also about a pound lighter. I think I’ve found my new hobby.
Tom Burson is an American freelance writer based in London. Follow him on Twitter.