The Tree of Life and mental health & wellbeing
July 20, 2021

Why have I chosen the tree symbol as the logo for Living Well Counselling Service?

Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky,” wrote Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran

The Tree of Life illustrates the interconnectedness of life. Human beings have much to learn from the natural world and urgently need to adopt more respectful ways of interacting with nature on so many levels – ecological, social, economic, globally.

Trees are living, breathing, growing symbols of the natural world. The tree can represent strength and growth within the cycle of life.

Emerging from a tiny seed, perhaps carried by a bird or other creature, they eventually stand tall, majestic, noble, as they weather the storms of life. They adapt to the seasons, and have the ability to recover and regrow, such as when coppiced, and even when fallen there can be new sprouts of growth from the trunk on the ground.

In his book “The Hidden Life of Trees” Peter Wohlleben wrote about the amazing connections between trees, the underground networks which work for mutual support and protection of the group.

What do trees mean to you? How does tree imagery translate into your own experience? What part of you would you like to grow? Do you need to establish some stronger roots to help you feel grounded?

So, what does this have to do with wellbeing, especially in the context of 2020-2021 and beyond?

The experience of the covid pandemic across the world has been a life-changing experience for many.

For some life slowed down, as usual activities became out of bounds with life revolving around the home and immediate environment, and the world took a breath (very noticeable in the first lockdown period). We faced a new and immediate threat to our lives – the virus circulating obviously – but also to life as we knew it. Economic threats, social threats, mental health threats – all bringing the realisation that both the present and the future were looking different from how we imagined them.

The experience has offered unexpected and unimagined perspectives.

As well as the obvious and immediate challenges of dealing with risk to our health and that of our loved ones, many people have felt the impact of financial and job uncertainty, the stress of working from home and home educating, and the loss of usual social interaction. We had to learn that contact with others was dangerous and to be avoided or minimised. Anxiety that might have already been around was exacerbated. Some people felt “paralysed”. Isolation increased for those who were vulnerable. Family conflicts may have been highlighted by the stark choices that families faced about contact and differing approaches to dealing with life under regulations.

At the same time, for many, there were unforeseen benefits. We came to value the habit of a daily walk, perhaps discovering new local places and meeting new people. Perhaps the slowing of our daily rhythm and working from home have enabled us to better get to know our neighbours, as we have compared notes and offered support to one another. Perhaps we have felt refreshed from the discovery of nature and the changing seasons as we slowed our pace. Some people discovered their artistic streak and directed energy (and the available time) into crafts and creativity.

As lockdown regulations were easing, new adjustments were needed as well as continued caution. We have lived through several periods of transition and are required to create and adapt afresh to our “new normal”. As we do this, anxieties can be triggered with the prospect of re-engaging with others face-to-face.

Does this sound familiar to you? Has your experience been different?

Adversity has provided an opportunity to stop, reassess and make changes.

We have been learning about our own fragility, recognising that we live in uncertain times; our planet and its resources are precious and life is finite.

The pausing of travel, whether in the air or on the land or sea, has given us an appreciation of a quieter world, slowing down our pace, clean skies and bird-song.

Kindness for one another and appreciation for all that is precious in our lives have become more obviously highlighted. For many, priorities have changed, values have shifted.

Mental, physical, emotional, spiritual self help – with nature

Evidence indicates that spending time in nature, in green spaces, can be beneficial to relieving stress. There is the release of serotonin, endorphins, dopamine and reduction of the stress hormone cortisol. These hormones help to de-activate the stress response and induce calm, spaciousness, and have a self-soothing effect.

Exposure to the shapes and colours of the natural world connects us to patterns of nature, to growth, to earthy smells, to weather, to the season and the cycle of life as represented in trees, plants and landscape. We can walk on the earth and experience a living carpet rather than concrete and man-made materials.

The Woodland Trust in the UK is a strong promoter of ‘tree time’ as a way to make us feel better in body, mind and spirit, and claims that our immersion in nature calms our spirit and helps us cope with stress.

There is a growing body of evidence that spending time in a woodland, or in green spaces or even looking at pictures of trees can benefit physical health, reduce blood pressure, improve immunity as well as decrease stress, anxiety and anguish.

Emma Mitchell writes about this in her book “The Wild Remedy”

“If you simply look at images of nature, that could be moving or stills, you get a relaxation response, if you actually go out to walk for 15-20 minutes then levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop significantly… our brains are hard-wired to respond to trees, plants, the sight of leaves and even just the colour green,” says Mitchell. The naturally occurring patterns in nature are also likely to improve our mood. “When we see fractals, for example the pattern of branches and twigs is a botanical fractal, you get a similar response in the brain to when we listen to music, which can trigger elation and dopamine,” explains Mitchell.

Talking therapy and the Tree of Life

We can think of therapy as a process which unfolds as we engage in conversation with a caring, supportive, interested, self-aware therapist. The therapist has training and experience, as well as interpersonal skills such as empathy, respect, and the ability to listen deeply.   The conversation is designed to encourage and enable an individual to develop their potential and to understand how different experiences have shaped and are shaping them.  Humans, like trees, experience the cycles of life, including awakening, growing, facing adversity and threats, changing colours with the seasons and shape with the years, moving through periods of quiet hibernation, and eventually towards the natural end of life. Sometimes we all need a helping hand to make sense of it all, find new meanings and direction. Therapy can offer us a space to reflect and choose our wisest course.

One branch of therapy is called eco-therapy or nature therapy which can treat physical and psychological ailments by re-establishing a strong connection with the natural world.

This might include:

Horticultural or garden therapy

Physical exercise outdoors amid the natural world

Environmental or conservation activities

Meditating in nature – or Japanese forest bathing

Animal-assisted therapies, such as therapy with horses (equine therapy)

My own vision…

Like the tree, can we learn to sway in the wind rather than resisting and breaking? Can we spread our metaphorical roots deep into the soil to ground and stabilize ourselves? Can we rediscover the wonder and preciousness of our natural world, and become more humble custodians of our planet? Through a love of trees and of nature might we forge new connections with one another?

Thank you for reading this blog. I hope it has inspired you.

Gill Lathwell