Posted on: April 29, 2020 at 5:22 pm
Last updated: April 29, 2020 at 5:25 pm

It’s a no-brainer that hugging makes people feel good. It’s the universal way of comforting and supporting others. Yet there are many health benefits to go along with it, including reducing stress (which can improve one’s immunity), potentially boosting heart health, reducing pain, helping communication, and releasing oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone.’ [1] 

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The term “tree hugger” is about to become literal.  

However, most Western people today are touch-deprived since our social conventions encourage us to avoid physical contact. During today’s pandemic, touch-deprivation has become even more widespread. Isolation is a real issue that can have negative effects on people’s mental and physical health, including depression, problems processing information, and becoming more susceptible to illness. [2] 

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Fortunately, today’s technology allows people to connect like never before. People can chat, play games, and interact with friends and family members across the world. Human interaction is extremely important and should be prioritized during these stressful times.  

However, while we can talk and see other people, physical touch has been lossed. Social distancing laws require us to stay away from others, and for the many people living alone or forced to distance from loved ones with the virus, this could be torturous. 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke about the emotional difficulty of this pandemic during a daily coronavirus press briefing: “There is something to this lack of ability to connect. Don’t hug, don’t kiss, stay six feet away. We are emotional beings and it is important for us, especially at times of fear, times of stress, to feel connected to someone, to feel comforted by someone.” [3] 

Become a Tree Hugger 

It’s understandable for people to long for a time when quarantines and social distancing end, just so they could hug someone. In the meantime, the Icelandic Forestry Service came up with a solution: Hug a tree. 

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“When you hug [a tree], you feel it first in your toes and then up your legs and into your chest and then up into your head,” says forest ranger Þór Þorfinnsson in the Hallormsstaður National Forest in East Iceland. “It’s such a wonderful feeling of relaxation and then you’re ready for a new day and new challenges.” 

According to Þór, trees can offer some comfort when hugging fellow humans is discouraged. In the Hallormsstaður National Forest, forest rangers have been paving snow to create paths for people to enjoy the woods without coming into contact with others, and hugging whichever tree they choose. Þór does encourage visitors to avoid hugging the same tree by walking deeper into the forest instead of embracing the first tree they see. “There are plenty of trees,” he says, “it doesn’t have to be big and stout, it can be any size.” 

He also encourages visitors to take their time to access the full benefits of the hug. “Five minutes is really good, if you can give yourself five minutes of your day to hug [a tree], that’s definitely enough. You can also do it many times a day — that wouldn’t hurt. But once a day will definitely do the trick, even for just a few days.” [4] 

Does Science Support any Aspect of this?

The notion of tree-hugging isn’t new. The Japanese have been practicing it and studying “shinrin-yoku” (forest bathing) for a long time and it’s been shown that being amongst nature can have many benefits for a person’s body and mind. There are about 48 official Forest Therapy trails in Japan for this reason. Studies have tested the blood of middle-aged businessmen hikers before and after they explored the trail for three days and their natural killer cells (which are critical to the immune system) have increased by 40%. Even a month later, their NK cells were 15% higher than before the trip. [5] 

Hugging a tree might make a person feel self-conscious at first, but don’t be ashamed to enjoy the experience. 

“It’s also really nice to close your eyes while you’re hugging a tree,” Þór says. “I lean my cheek up against the trunk and feel the warmth and the currents flowing from the tree and into me. You can really feel it.”  

Not only can hugs potentially support our immune systems, but being outdoors can as well. This is why the forest rangers have also marked the paths with the six feet distance required to maintain social distancing. This will encourage people to enjoy the health benefits of nature without risking themselves to the virus. 

“It’s recommended that people get outdoors during this horrible time,” says Bergrún Anna Þórsteinsdóttir, assistant forest ranger at Hallormsstaður. “Why not enjoy the forest and hug a tree and get some energy from this place?” [6] 

The bottom line: Is tree hugging a sure-fire way make up for all that physical human interaction we’re missing? No, but it won’t hurt either, and it might just do you some good too.

References: 

[1] Erica Cirino. What Are the Benefits of Hugging? Healthline.https://www.healthline.com/health/hugging-benefits#7April 10, 2018

[2] Sarita Robinson, the Conversation. Isolation Has Profound Effects on The Human Body And Brain. Here’s What Happens. Science Alert. https://www.sciencealert.com/isolation-has-profound-effects-on-the-human-body-and-brain-here-s-what-happens February 3, 2019 

[3] Governor Andrew Cuomo. Video, Audio, Photos & Rush Transcript: Governor Cuomo Announces Three-Way Agreement with Legislature on Paid Sick Leave Bill to Provide Immediate Assistance for New Yorkers Impacted By COVID-19. New York State. https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/video-audio-photos-rush-transcript-governor-cuomo-announces-three-way-agreement-legislature March 17, 2020 

[4] Larissa Kyzer. Forest Service Recommends Hugging Trees While You Can’t Hug Others. ICeland Review. https://www.icelandreview.com/nature-travel/forest-service-recommends-hugging-trees-while-you-cant-hug-others/ April 10, 2020 

[5] Chris Tackett. ‘Forest bathing’ in Japan taps the healing powers of forests. Tree Hugger. https://www.treehugger.com/economics/japans-forest-therapy-program-taps-healing-powers-forests.html February 12, 2013 

[6] Melissa Breyer. Iceland recommends hugging trees instead of people. Tree Hugger. https://www.treehugger.com/health/iceland-recommends-hugging-trees-instead-people.html April 15, 2020 

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Sarah Schafer
Founder of The Creative Palate
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender. Her blog The Creative Palate shares the nutrition and imagination of her recipes for others embarking on their journey to wellbeing.

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