What Japanese Bathhouses Taught Me About Stress Management

People generally associate Japan with words such as convenience and relaxation. Images of fast and efficient public transport, vending machines and Buddhist temples often come to mind. That being said, for sufferers of anxiety disorders, Japan’s greatest offering is its bath culture. After living there for a year, I can say with certainty that Japanese bath culture helped treat my anxiety disorder.

As someone who suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Attack Disorder, Japanese bathhouses offered me a natural remedy for anxiety: a ritual of relaxation.

The habits I learned from my trips to public baths or hot springs stuck with me well after my departure. So how did public baths naturally lower anxiety in the long-term?

The Bath Experience

Picture Taken in Kanaguya Onsen

When you talk about bath culture in Japan, the image that comes to mind for most people is that of elegant and grand bathtubs. However, the bath experience does not begin the moment you enter the tub, the public bath experience in Japan is much more than that.

Since you must silence your phone before going in, you’re forced to disconnect from the outside world for a while.

Whether you suffer from an anxiety disorder or not, this moment signals the entrance into a safe space. It helps lower your baseline anxiety in both the short-term and the long-term by teaching your body to naturally calm down. You’re forced to make time for yourself, and sento (Japanese for public bath) are the perfect place to disengage and disconnect while at the same time making it a regular habit.

Showering is the first thing that you do when you arrive. It’s a good way to get your body accustomed to the warmth of the bathtub. Not to mention that it’s considered good manners since the water is shared and non-chlorinated.

What makes the shower special is that you do it sitting down. By sitting down on surprisingly simple yet comfortable plastic chairs, you take your time and get the water to just the right temperature as you lather up.

Quite honestly, it puzzles me why we don’t shower while sitting down in the West. There’s so many advantages to doing so, one of them being that you’re able to start slowing down before you even start bathing.

After a long day, you might feel extremely tired, achy, maybe even feeling a bit unwell. Getting yourself cleaned up with less effort helps you slow down and enjoy the process.

By the time you finish your shower, you’re generally a lot more relaxed than when you first came in. You then get excited about the main event: soaking in the tub.

Onsen Is Always Better With A Good View

There’s a wide variety of bath types in Japan. Some are infused with aromatic herbs that have a pleasant and relaxing scent. Others have strong water jets that hit all the usual spots of tension. There may be several baths at different temperatures, good for those that like to either work their way up or down the temperature scale. For many, the water can seem too hot at first, but the secret lies in staying still.

Once you get used to it, your body will slowly start loosening its muscles and a sense of deep calm will wash over you.

The sheer amount of options is one of the great things about going to a public bathhouse in Japan. Once you start getting too warm, you can take a cool shower or dive in a cold bath. After a soak or two, many people take the opportunity to wash their hair or shave. After that, they dive in the bath again. Needless to say, a lot of thought has gone into the design that makes these establishments amazing stress busters.

The Ritual

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The ritual that you develop when going to these places is essential to why it’s so therapeutic.

When you have anxiety, you crave for safe spaces that are anxiety-free zones. Sadly, our homes aren’t always the most relaxing places. Sometimes we have to bring work and school with us, the temptation of technology is stronger, or there might be chores and cooking to be done.

If we are to teach our bodies to relax, they need the right environment and mindset to do so.

Going to a public space that’s dedicated to relaxing and disconnecting can be extremely liberating. It helps foster positive habits such as self-care and meditation. I brought with me a lot of the mindset and habits revolving Japanese bath culture after I moved back to the US, and I’ve become a more mindful person because of it.

Although it’s hard to replicate the bath experience without using up a lot of water and electricity, there are ways to apply the same principles at home.

The important thing is to make time to relax and disconnect. This means putting the phone away for at least half an hour and closing your eyes while doing something therapeutic. Basically, create an imaginary space in your mind that is separate from your daily life.

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You can achieve this through aromatherapy, music, or guided meditation. Even if it can’t replace the physical effects of warm water, you can induce a state of relaxation. Thanks to these new habits, I learned to rely less on medication and instead use alternative tools at my disposal to help lower my anxiety.

Did you you find this useful? Consider buying me a coffee.