I am a self-professed tree-hugger, and any one of my close friends can attest to that (both to being a tree-hugger and to actually hugging them!).
Escaping into nature has always been a solace of mine. Getting away from the busyness of life, to quiet my mind, and be present in the moment, whether to watch and hear the leaves dance in the wind, to feel the freshness of a breeze or the warmth of the sun against my face.
Trees are good for our mental well-being
Instinctively, I always knew being in the trees and forests made me feel better, calmer, less stressed, however I didn’t know why.
Working towards my certification in forest therapy with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, I have had the pleasure of digging deeper to find the answer.
The idea of being in the forest or practicing forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, as it was first coined in Japan, is a practice of slowly walking through a forest and experiencing it through all your senses. It may sound deceptively simple, and it is, yet the benefits that result are anything but. Spending time in the trees and the forests is just plain good for us, as the growing body of scientific research shows.
In terms of anxiety and depression, it has been found that those who walked for 15 minutes in a forest experienced less symptoms, (and more vigor!), compared to those walking in an urban setting, and spending time in a forest has also been shown to increase the ability to recover from stress.
If we look at levels of cortisol and adrenaline, those infamous indicators of stress, spending time in a forest can decrease those as well! Compared to walking in an urban environment, walking in a forest environment can decrease cortisol levels. Given that stress also inhibits our immune system, the stress-reduction benefits of being in a forest are even further magnified – which is something we all need right now.
Trees are good for our physical health
Exposure to forests also boosts our immune systems. While we breathe in the forest air, it is like being in a natural aromatherapy session. Trees emit airborne chemicals, called phytoncides, used to protect themselves from insects. As we breathe in these phytoncides, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a particular kind of white blood cell, called natural killer (NK) cells. These cells can kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. It has been shown that just after a three-day, two-night forest bathing trip, participants had an increased NK activity for more than 30 days after the trip!
Even more pertinent now, is how forests can actually improve our own lung functioning. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution now kills more than seven million people annually. With an early link being shown between those living in polluted areas suffering higher COVID-19 death rates, ensuring there are enough trees in our urban areas to clean our air is even more paramount.
The intimate connection of trees to our physical health became apparent in the United States from 1990 to 2007, when 15 states monitored disease rates as the emerald ash borer, after decimating over a million trees, was associated with over 6,000 human deaths from illness of the respiratory system and over 15,000 from heart disease. In terms of impacts on human health, trees in urban areas have also been shown to be substantially more important than rural trees due to their proximity to people and the benefits they have of removing air pollution by physically intercepting particulate matter and absorbing gasses through their leaves.
Get your forest Rx
You might ask now, so if trees are so good for me, how much time should I spend in the forest or among the trees? Well, if it were up to me, it would be along the lines of Henry David Thoreau, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
Given that the majority of us don’t normally have a four-hour chunk of time at once on a regular basis, it has been found that a “nature pill” dose of at least 20-30 minutes at least three times a week in a place where you feel a sense of connection to nature is beneficial.
So for all these reasons and more, I try to make it a daily practice to interact with my tree friends, whether it is looking outside my sunroom window, my walks to work, visiting my favorite willow trees in my city arboretum, or if I am really lucky, on a long a hike or camping trip deep in the woods. I acknowledge and thank them daily for everything they do for us, and when no one is looking, I give them a hug. I mean, I know they have my back, just like I have theirs.