Man and dog walking in the forest

Much has been written about the importance of trees and one would be hard-pressed to refute their benefits. Trees are simply amazing. They clean air and water, reverse the impact of land degradation, prevent species loss, and ease poverty by helping communities achieve long-term economic sustainability by providing food, energy, and income. They even provide something as simple as shade to enjoy a picnic. Finally, planting trees is one of the easiest and most important way to help stave off the effects of climate change.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, trees also provide other benefits which have always been there but are now coming more in focus. Trees can help provide a stress relief during these crazy and unusual times.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has certainly caused people’s stress level to skyrocket. Fear and anxiety about an unseen virus and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. I am sure there are many like me who worry about our health and the health of loved ones. That stress along with financial and job worries, changes in sleeping and eating patterns and difficulty in sleeping can be overwhelming, causing anxiety and the need for release.Forest stream winding its way through the trees

Take my suggestion and get outside, and even better, if possible, take a walk in the forest! Numerous studies in the U.S. and around the world are exploring the health benefits of spending time outside in nature, green spaces, and, specifically, forests. (Some study results mentioned in this blog are detailed by the State of NY Department of Environmental Conservation.) Recognizing these benefits, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, in 1982, even coined a term for it: shinrin-yoku. It means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing,” and the ministry encourages people to visit forests to relieve stress and improve health. And it is essential to take care of your emotional health to help you think clearly and help other family members cope with stress.

As outlined below, research evidence continues to mount on how spending time outdoors makes us healthier. It’s important to make time to get outdoors as well, since doing so is beneficial — maybe essential — for human health. Psychologists and health researchers are finding more and more science-backed reasons we should go outside and enjoy the natural world.

Exposure to forests boosts our immune system. While we breathe in the fresh air, we breathe in phytoncides, airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell that kill virus-infected cells in our bodies.

Spending time around trees and looking at trees reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and improves mood. While I make it a habit to take a weekly hike in the nearby forests, even just looking at trees has therapeutic effects. Researchers found that taking in natural sights significantly decreased the scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue. And because stress inhibits the immune system, the stress-reduction benefits of forests are further magnified.

And you don’t even have to spend a lot of time outdoors (or be doing strenuous exercise) to soak in its effects. New research at Cornell University has found that as little as 10 minutes in a natural setting (just sitting or walking) can help college students feel happier and lessen the effects of both physical and mental stress. They found that 10-50 minutes in natural spaces was the most effective to improve mood, focus and physiological markers like blood pressure and heart rate.

Green spaces in urban areas are just as important as rural forests. You say you don’t have access to the wide-open forests. No worries. If you are like me and the other 85% of the US population who live in suburban and urban areas, gardens, parks and street trees make up what is called an urban and community forest. These pockets of green space are vitally important because they are the sources of our daily access to trees. Take some time and chill in these urban green spaces.

Reflection of leaf creating heart shape on tree barkBeing out in the sunshine will provide you with the vitamin D that your body needs. There is not a lot of vitamin D in the foods we eat, but exposure to the sun can do the trick, at least to some degree. Even in winter it is important for your body to be exposed to the sun’s rays. So when the snow starts flying, bundle up and get outdoors for a while. You will feel better and your mood will improve.

Spending time in nature helps you focus. Our lives are busier than ever with jobs, school, and family life. Trying to focus on many activities or even a single thing for long periods of time can mentally drain us, a phenomenon called Directed Attention Fatigue. Spending time in nature, looking at plants, water, birds and other aspects of nature gives the cognitive portion of our brain a break, allowing us to focus better and renew our ability to be patient. Furthermore, when you move your body, you produce endorphins that will help you feel good.

Finally, a number of studies help demonstrate other benefits of being among the trees including performing better on creative tasks, ability to focus better ( including helping children with ADHD), lowering blood pressure, protecting your vision, help fight anxiety and depression, eliminate fatigue, reduce body inflammation, improving short-term memory. Finally, hospital patients with “green views” recover from surgery faster, take fewer painkillers and had better post-surgical results.

Yes, there are many ways to destress, but few as easy and inexpensive as walking outside in nature. A simple solution to cope with stress during the global pandemic- spend some time outdoors where you can breathe in the fresh air of nature. Make it part of your daily or weekly routine. Go to the forest, take a walk along a river or around a lake. I guarantee, you’ll feel better and a little less stressed.

Forest lake with reflection of trees and clouds