March 21st is the day that the UN have named as ‘International Day of Forests’. As we all know, forests are vitally important for so many reasons: they provide food, medicine, oxygen, jobs, biodiversity, building materials and space for recreation. We simply could not survive without forests.
As a Wellbeing Champion, one aspect of forests that I find so appealing is how good they are for human health and wellbeing. In a world where we are becoming disconnected from nature, forests provide an amazing opportunity for us to reconnect with the earth in order to improve both our mental and physical health.
Forest-bathing, or shinrin yoku, as it is known in Japan, where it originated from, is an ancient therapy where people take a meditative walk through a wood, spending time touching, smelling and listening. In a simple evolutionary reflex to an environment that we perceive will provide what we need to survive – safety and food (and bonus points for water too!) – this simple activity reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol are linked to anxiety, depression, heart disease, weight gain and issues with concentration. As a result, a forest-bathing session reduces stress, increases mood and focus, and can have profound effects on the immune system.
One aspect of forest bathing is tree hugging, which can benefit so many of us as we experience the reduction in social interaction and touching that comes with the restrictions of a global pandemic. Family therapist Virginia Satir once said that we need 4 hugs a day for survival, 8 hugs a day for maintenance and 12 hugs a day for growth. Did you know that hugging a tree releases the same hormones in the body as does hugging another human?!
A cuddle with a fellow human provokes the body to release oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’: we feel calm, relaxed, empathetic and emotionally bonded. When you hug a tree, which is also a living, breathing object, you also experience a release of oxytocin, making you feel happier, less stressed and more bonded with nature.
The great thing about tree hugging is that if access to extensive woodland is awkward, you can still reap the benefits as trees are everywhere. Find your local nature access and make the most of it. If you are Worcester-based, Cripplegate Park or the river walk up to Pitchcroft and Gheluvelt Park provide plenty of opportunities for a quick cuddle! Slightly further afield, try a walk at Powick Hams, Cherry Orchard Nature Reserve, Perry Wood or Worcester Woods Country Park. And if you have access to a car, my absolute favourites to recommend are The Knapp and Papermill Nature Reserve, Shrawley Woods, Trench Woods, Tiddesley Woods and the amazing Wyre Forest.
I vehemently believe in the positive benefits of forest bathing, tree hugging and simply spending more time surrounded by nature. As the weather improves and restrictions are gradually lifted, I urge you all to take some time away from tech for a little boost to your health. Have fun!