Climbing trees isn’t just for able-bodied children and adults. Dr. John Gathright believes it can be an inclusive form of therapy with the power to foster positive emotions in people of all physical and mental abilities.
Gathright is the founder of Tree Climbing Japan, an organization that uses tree climbing as rehabilitation for physically-challenged people to overcome pain while improving well-being, mobility, and strength.
“I believe that trees are our friends, teachers, and doctors,” Gathright said at annual conference of the International Society of Arboriculture in Washington, D.C.
The inspiration for his new therapeutic approach for people with disabilities came from a 57-year-old woman named Hikosaka Toshiko. Gathright met her before he was involved in field of tree climbing at a signing event for a book he wrote about achieving your dreams. She is physically challenged and uses a wheelchair. She told him her dream was to climb the world’s tallest tree and asked for his help. Gathright agreed and, in 2000, after three years of preparation, Toshiko was ready to take on a 250-foot tall giant sequoia. It took her over an hour to get a quarter of the way up.
“She had the goal of reaching the top of the tree, and it took her three and a half hours to get half way,” he said, recalling her reaction when, after over five hours, she made it to the top. “She said, ‘I’m here. I’m not a cripple. I’m a challenger. Thank you, tree. Thank you, everybody.’”
Gathright wanted to then empower others with physical and mental disabilities. Through his work with Toshiko, Gathright developed TreeHab, a set of adaptive, therapeutic tree-climbing techniques.
“People said climbing had physiological and social benefits, that when they climbed trees they didn’t feel pain. The people who were depressed and had anxiety changed in our programs,” Gathright said, relaying testimonials from people who climbed.
But there was a lack of research on the subject, so Gathright went back to school to get his PhD at Nagoya University to prove the science behind the program. He conducted a study monitoring subjects’ brain waves and stress hormones as they climbed a live tree compared to when they climbed a concrete tower in the same forest.
“We wanted to know how people’s bodies changed with the trees,” he said. “We discovered climbing a tree and a concrete tower in the same forest produced very different and measurable physical and physiological results.”
He found that tree climbing had a masking effect on internal pain, and that positive emotions were enhanced while negative emotions were decreased in subjects climbing live trees, but not when climbing the concrete tower.
His program has helped children to cope with mental and physical trauma by creating a connection to nature and allowing trees to tell their story when they cannot. Gathright also uses the program to educate climbers about tree health and forests and turn them into advocates for forests.
Beyond Japan, Gathright believes there’s great opportunity for this form of therapy worldwide.
“I think it will be huge,” he said. “Look at the demographics: in America alone, 57 million people have a disability. Anxiety disorders — another forty million adults.”