The Positive Effects of Gardening on Our Mental Health
By Ruby Simpson (Nicholsons CAD Technician)
Winter is on its way… Sparkling frosty lawns, evenings snuggled up on the sofa with hot chocolate and old movies, fairy lights and bright crackling fires come to mind. Everyone starts planning for all the various social occasions and other festivities over the Christmas period. There is a happy and excited atmosphere in the homes and workplaces of most people.
Sometimes, however, it’s not quite so easy to muster the enthusiasm. With shorter days, longer nights, dark commutes to and from work and only seeing the daylight through the office window, many people may find they experience the winter blues. Around 6% of the population suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is sometimes known as ‘winter depression’ because it is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. Symptoms often begin in the autumn, when the days start getting shorter, and disappear in the spring, when the days get longer and lighter again. The symptoms are the same as normal depression, but significantly worse in December, January and February, and then in the summer, the depression is gone.
As a sufferer of anxiety and depression and a lover of horticulture, I have inadvertently come to appreciate the considerable benefits of gardening in helping to manage my mental illness… But I’m certainly not the only one. Horticultural Therapy is already a very popular coping mechanism for mental health issues and there are several charities around the country that provide this form of alternative treatment. There are lots of scientific reasons why horticulture might help us mentally: getting out in the garden increases our exposure to daylight levels which promotes the production of serotonin – a hormone that makes us happy, as well as inhibiting the production of melatonin – a hormone that makes us sleepy. Gardening also provides invaluable exercise which reduces cortisol levels (stress hormones) and increases endorphins (happy hormones), and in turn this helps us sleep more deeply and peacefully.
Looking after plants gives us a sense of caring for and nurturing another living thing – this is hugely beneficial in taking the focus off ourselves and the ways in which we are suffering. Depression and anxiety can be extremely self-absorbing, but nature reminds us how big the universe is and how important other things are outside of ourselves. Making sure that plants are fed, watered, pruned and keeping the garden beautifully tended helps give us a focus away from our noisy minds. Some garden activities can be a great form of stress relief: hacking a diseased or dying shrub to pieces with a saw, pruners and brute force is an excellent way to get any simmering anger out. And, in general, the transformation of a messy unkempt garden (or even just a border) into a neat and tidy space is incredibly satisfying and gives us a great sense of achievement. Having the responsibility of keeping it looking that way also provides a vitally important ongoing focus.
Gardening can be a fantastic escape from other people, work and social media. It gives our minds a break and allows our thoughts to clear. One of the best ways to stop worrying is to concentrate on the here and now and gardening allows our mind to do this – temporarily forgetting about the past and not worrying about the future. For me, gardening takes my mind off the worries and stresses that are constantly circulating in my head and works in a similar way to meditating. Meditation is known to be a useful tool for quietening the mind by allowing thoughts to come and go without spending time analysing and overthinking each one. This is a tricky technique to perfect, which is why I find gardening useful in order to help me do this. It allows me to focus on the task I am doing whilst also being aware of my senses at the same time.
So, a bit of gardening can never be a bad thing! I think it’s important to consider alternative methods to overcoming mental health issues, especially methods that involve nature. It is positive to see that studies on the subject are continuing to be conducted and people are exploring other ways of treating mental health issues. Gardening is not the only option, but it is certainly very accessible and effective. It is good for our mental and physical health, it’s good for nature and wildlife, and it’s good for the environment – which – let’s face it – needs saving as much as we do!