The events of the past few weeks have sent most of our worlds into a tailspin: illness (or the threat of it), social distancing, lost incomes, uncertain daily supplies, grueling work situations and disturbing daily news — all of which take a mental toll on us.
Fortunately, one of the best bits of therapy is just outside our door — gardening.
For centuries, gardening has provided wholesome therapy to people in times of trouble. There’s something almost magic about the soothing effects of sunlight on your face, an afternoon of planting seeds, weeding a flower bed, or harvesting your own tomatoes.
You don’t need an extensive garden to glean these benefits. Just growing some things in pots, or tending a patch near your apartment building, or even getting outside to a local park or wild area will have many of the same benefits.
Study after study finds that spending time outside being active and in nature decreases levels of the harmful stress hormone cortisol and increases feel good endorphins. Gardening has the additional benefits of being more hands on with the end result an attractive landscape, beautiful flowers or abundant produce.
More than once, I’ve been angry at a family member, frustrated with work or worried about any multitude of things and gone outside to work in the garden in order to feel better. Invariably, within just 10 minutes of starting to dig, weed or rake, I feel better. Give me a good hour of that and sometimes I’ll forget what drove me out into the garden in the first place.
The benefits of garden are endless and complex.
Here are just a few:
• Gardening is a healthy distraction. Engaging in a garden task allows you to get away from other problems, be more mindful of your immediate surroundings, and focus on single task.
• It gives you a sense of control in a world that is often out of control. You are able to accomplish something tangible, giving you a sense of accomplishment. You might not be able to fix the world, but you can at least trim that hedge and stand back and admire your work.
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• Nature soothes your mind and body. Studies of people walking in nature, compared to those walking in urban environments, experienced greater decreases in the stress hormone cortisol, decreases in sympathetic nerve activity (which triggers anxiety and our body’s fight-or-flight response), decreases in blood pressure and decreases in heart rate.
• When you’re feeling anxious and antsy from being quarantined, heavy work in the garden can help you work off what used to be called “nervous energy.” The exercise helps release those post-exercise endorphins that give you a sense of calm.
• You’re exposed to sunlight. Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of the feel-good hormone serotonin, one reason we tend to be more depressed in winter and happier during summer.
• Growing your own produce helps you eat more healthily and better control your weight, which also has mental health benefits. Growing your own produce also boosts your sense of self-sufficiency in uncertain times.
• Gardening is nature’s own aromatherapy. Getting outside and smelling cut grass or lilacs or even the smell of rich, overturned moist earth makes us feel good.
• Working in the yard or garden can deepen relationships with others who you’re quarantined with, especially when you’re teaching or playing with children.
• You can multiply the benefits of gardening by doing it in a helpful way. Find an elderly or physically limited person and volunteer to clean up their beds, mow their lawn, or do some pruning for them. Adopt a stretch of road or a local flower bed (you can do it almost exclusively online or with phone calls). Or just get out to your local park or roadside and pick up trash. Research shows that people who help others and their community have a lower rate of depression.
Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of the Iowa Gardener at www.theiowagardener.com