The citizens of Iceland have been encouraged by the forestry service to hug trees every day for five at least minutes. This is being encouraged to help people cope with social isolation, but does it really work? In this post, we will look at research showing the surprising benefits of hugging trees and explore why tree-hugging really can make you feel better.
Why is tree-hugging recommended in Iceland?
In response to the challenges of social isolation and social distancing due to COVID-19, Iceland’s Forestry Service has encouraged tree-hugging. Physical contact with others has been discouraged whether we are socially distancing or socially isolating.
However, this prolonged physical separation can be psychologically challenging. The lack of hugs and physical touch can intensify feelings of separation, isolation, and loneliness. Iceland’s response? Hug trees!
Icelanders are being recommended to hug a tree for at least 5 minutes. The experience of hugging a tree has been described as a visceral feeling. As you hug the tree, a sensation travels through your toes and up through your body all the way up to your head. Rangers from the Hallormsstaður National Forest have cleared snow and marked out 2-meter spaces to help.
The psychological benefits of connection to nature
Humans are intimately connected to nature. This is an idea that has persisted across cultures and throughout the history of time. This is reflected by the idea that we all tend to prefer countryside views to urban ones.
Nature and images of nature often inspire feelings of awe. Piff et. al.’s study found that this sense of awe changes our sense of self and reduces barriers we feel between ourselves and others. The positive emotions we get from nature have also been shown to foster altruistic behavior even when briefly experienced.
On the other side, Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” study hypothesizes that depression and anxiety are fuelled by a disconnect with nature they term a “nature-deficit disorder”.
Other studies have shown the numerous and wide-ranging benefits of a connection to nature. For example:
- Risk of type II diabetes, premature death, heart disease, high blood pressure, and preterm birth is reduced by exposure to green spaces (Twohig-Bennett & Jones).
- Surgery recovery times can be improved with a view of nature through the window (Ulrich).
- Increased tree-canopy cover can reduce poor birth outcomes (Donovan et. al.)
- Symptoms of ADHD in children can be reduced with increased activity in green outdoor spaces (Kuo & Taylor).
- Walking in nature reduces negativity, anxiety, and stress (Bratman et. al.).
What are the benefits of tree-hugging?
As we have outlined, getting out into nature, being surrounded by it, or simply viewing it can have psychological and physical benefits. Getting up close and personal only serves to accentuate these effects. This has long been known in Japan, where the national health program has offered forest bathing since 1982.
Known as shinrin-yoku, forest bathing has been found to reduce blood pressure, improve memory and concentration, and lower cortisol levels. Rather than simply strolling through a forest, it involves shedding all devices and mindfully spending time under the tree’s canopies. Typically, this would last at least 3 hours. However, the close contact of hugging a tree for 5 minutes makes mindful practice somewhat easier.
Breathe in the smells, feel the way the tree presses against you, feel its energy, and listen to the sounds. Some studies have suggested that forest bathing and tree-hugging might even work because of chemicals the tree emits. Known as phytoncides, these chemicals may have physiological effects that explain why hugging trees and immersing yourself in nature can be beneficial for your health.
How can you benefit from hugging trees and immersing in nature?
There are numerous ways you can seek to benefit from increased engagement with nature, whether that involves hugging trees or not. Here, we outline some of the different ways you can increase your connectedness to nature from the small to the big:
- Watch nature programs (truly, this works!).
- Surround yourself with plants (at work and at home).
- Choose routes with more trees and green spaces, not just the quickest.
- Get up early for the birds’ dawn chorus (be sure to be in place before the start of sunrise).
- Grow your own flowers and/or food to feel that connectedness with nature.
- Plant a tree (or more than one).
- Sit under a tree and practice mindfulness.
- Go the whole hog and give that tree a big old cuddle! Do this daily, once or more. Close your eyes and really feel at one with nature.
During the time of social distancing, we should be careful to avoid emotional distancing. Fortunately, Iceland’s forestry service might just have cracked how we can all feel more connected.
More and more studies reveal the benefits of feeling connected with nature, and tree-hugging is just one example. Simply seeing it more can improve our well-being, both physically and psychologically. However, when we get up close and hug a tree, the benefits can be even greater. Give it a go and see what it can do!
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