Be a Tree Hugger — How Forests Helped Me, and How They Can Help You Too
by Stacy Thomas | September 3, 2020, updated about 1 month ago
I’m a person with ADHD, complex PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and a myriad of other diagnoses that keep me in a constant state of fight-or-flight. It’s hard for me to find ways to settle down. Years and years of therapy and medications, both prescription and natural have helped, but I still battle with myself daily. Relaxation is almost alien to me, and sleep—well, that’s a whole other story.
However there’s been one thing that steadies me—nature. Walking in a forest relaxes me, and makes me feel strong, and at peace. Being surrounded by trees soothes me.
I love nature. People stress me out.
I’m certain a large part of the relaxation I experience when in nature has to do with the sense of getting away from the “madding crowd,” and getting some space and silence, but I figured there had to be more to it. It turns out, in fact, that I am correct and there is a physiological reason for why I find forest walks so healing.
The Trees Nurture Us
Trees can make us more creative, kinder, less anxious and depressed, and just better all around. My experience with living in the city, and comparing it against now, when I live in a town surrounded by natural wonders, is definitely evidence of this.
I live in a town surrounded by towering old-growth temperate rainforest. It’s spotted with stands of birch and poplar. Ice blue rivers drain from glaciers that look down from above in every direction. Lakes of turquoise blue sparkle, while the lakes of murky green calmly invite you to skip rocks on their smooth surfaces. To the west, dominating everything, is the Pacific Ocean.
I moved here after fifteen years in a city where I struggled with the crowds, traffic and noise. I hated it, but when you’re a single woman of not fantastic means, it’s hard to break away and move.
I was aching to go somewhere healthier where I could be happy. My body knew it was better off near nature. After following my instincts and finding a way to make the change, I felt better.
Trees have power. Just being around them is healing, and invigorating to humans, and that’s not just anecdotal, there’s scientific research to back that up.
The Human Transition Away from Nature
Up until the last 300 or so years, most humans have lived in and with nature. We gathered our food from it, and used the resources around us to build our structures and make the clothes we wore. We turned to nature to tell us how to live our lives.
As industry and technology began to boom and spread, humans were removed from nature. We built homes and communities that were cut off from the wilds around us. Forests were cleared to make way for cities, and to fill the factories that built them. Buildings blocked out the sky. Nature itself was pushed out, and the patches of green left over became places we visited for an afternoon, or somewhere we travelled to.
For many of us, nature became a place we visited in our minds. A fantasy. Something we dreamed about, or that we envision for a sense of calm while meditating. This is evidence of the important connection we all have to the world around us.
The craving for the wilderness is called biophilia, and it was first proposed by German-American psychoanalyst Eric Fromm in his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, in which he wrote that biophilia is the “passionate love of life and all that is alive.” This need to observe and connect to other life forms, be it plant, tree, bird or bug, is why humans feel happy when they have trees in their lives.
We see ourselves in nature—in the way a tree grows, or a mama bear raises her cubs, or in the way the crows gossip in the treetops. Finding this connection, being immersed in nature, makes us feel whole, healthy, and at peace.
Breathe It In
At the cellular level, all life on our planet is made from the same material. Therefore, it is not hard to comprehend that what trees emit in the way of essential oils and chemicals can be as beneficial to our bodies as they are to the tree itself.
Phytoncides are a substance that plants secrete in order to protect themselves from insects and germs, but they are beneficial to humans. It has been shown in studies that inhaling phytoncides from trees increases the presence of natural killer cells, which destroy infection.
Terpene, which is the essential oil in phytoncides, happens to smell really great. It’s the reason why, when we arrive at a forest, the first thing we do is breathe in deeply—to get that big dose of positive vibe-inducing terpenes.
You’re So Beautiful to Me
When we’re in the forest, we’re free from the constant visual barrage that is living in civilized society—lights that tell us when to go and when to stop, cars whizzing by, and billboard advertisements everywhere. These visuals dominate our field of vision. It’s a hectic array of stimulating, moving objects that doesn’t stop unless we close our eyes, or hide in our apartments.
When we’re in the forest, however, we can reach a state that is referred to by psychologist Steven Kaplan as, “soft fascination”.
It just sounds relaxing, doesn’t it?
Soft fascination is what happens when we’re in the woods observing what’s around us. We’re unhurried, there’s no demands being made on our attention, and the colours are soft, natural and varied. Our gaze is allowed to drift to the near and far distance, or anywhere it likes, uninterrupted by hard, aggressive, or ugly visuals. This unobstructed view of nature allows us to relax, and lets our minds wander.
The Sound of Nature
Just like a busy visual environment, a noisy urban environment filled with too-loud, unpredictable, dissonant sounds disconnects us from nature as well. As I’ve previously written, our heads and the earth’s core, vibrate at the same frequency. When we are separated from that frequency, bad things happen to us.
When we’re amongst the trees, under the sound-dampening canopy of the forest, our minds can rest. Natural silence has a calming effect on us. Numerous studies have shown that nature sounds, such as wind in the trees, can soothe our nervous systems and calm our fight-flight-or-freeze response.
Reach Out and Touch...a Tree?
In Japan, the act of “Forest Bathing” is called shinrin-yoku (forest-bath), and it has been studied and practiced extensively in that country since 1990, when it was first researched and written about by Qing Li, then medical student and now the chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine.
Forest bathing means immersing yourself completely in a forest, and engaging all of your senses—sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. Li also recommends wandering aimlessly, with our minds drifting behind us—don’t get lost though!
Yes, you should hug a tree, but if that’s too “hippie” for you, just lean up against it. If no one’s looking you can casually press your cheek up against its rough bark. This tactile experience is just another way to connect.
Basically, hug a tree and it will hug you back—with a wave of happiness.
You aren’t excluded from participating in tree therapy if you aren’t lucky enough to be able to get to a forest or mountain on the regular—you can head to a nearby park, or look out a window, or just look at a picture of some trees. The healing power of nature is so grand, that these simple acts of connection give us a moment to feel its magical effects.
Stacy Thomas was born and raised among the orchards of the Okanagan Valley. She studied journalism in Vancouver, B.C., and has worked as a reporter in places such as Germany, Ukraine, Northern B.C. and rural Alberta. Passionate about nature, she now lives in Squamish with her partner Nicki and her rescue dog Harley. She is currently a student of creative writing at the University of British Columbia, where she draws comics and writes poetry.