Gardening has long been considered a therapeutic hobby for well-being. However, science is just now beginning to back up the benefits of getting your hands dirty with research. Mental health professionals have even started incorporating gardening into treatment for substance abuse and alcoholism. “Horticultural therapy” has proven to be helpful as an intervention for many mental health conditions, including PTSD, dementia, and intellectual disabilities. It has been particularly effective in decreasing depression and anxiety.
Whether you have the space to plant a sprawling garden or you only have room for a few pots on a balcony, you can still reap the benefits of gardening. Let’s look at some of the reasons you should do more pruning, mulching, and weeding and the mental health gains you can get from it.
Exposure to Nature
Science confirms what we intuitively know: that just being outside benefits your mental well-being. Everything from stress hormones and heart rate to brain waves and protein markers is positively impacted when you spend time in nature. If you live in an urban area, just hanging out in any green space, such as a park, has similar benefits.
Specifically, one study conducted in four European cities sought to establish whether green spaces had a positive effect on physical and mental health. The study recruited 3748 respondents who visited green spaces regularly. There were definite positive associations between exposure to nature and improved mental and physical well-being. Another study showed that the mental health benefits of green spaces last for a long time after your encounter with nature.
In 1991, researcher R. Ulrich developed the Stress Reduction Theory, based on numerous studies mostly carried out in hospital settings, to explain people’s emotional and physiological reactions in the presence of nature. His theory stated that just looking at scenery containing natural elements like greenery or water creates positive emotions and feelings and has a spontaneous and immediate restorative effect, both physically and mentally.
Marine biologist and environmental pioneer Rachel Carson said: “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity. Maybe it’s because we are part of nature and nature is part of us. Youth at risk of behavioral, psychological and psychosocial issues had large statistically significant improvements with wilderness adventure therapy. The wilderness therapy proved successful even when the participants did not respond positively to other forms of interventions. Gardening can be used as a holistic mental health treatment option.
Another advantage of gardening is that you get a bigger dose of sunlight. More sunshine means better mental health and more happiness, in general. In The Relationship Between Sunshine, Serotonin, Vitamin D, and Depression, I write:
Sunshine greatly impacts your mental health. Surprisingly, your day could include uncomfortably hot temperatures, thick air pollution, or even rain clouds, but that doesn’t necessarily affect your mood. If you’re getting enough sun, your emotions should remain relatively stable, researchers found.”
Science shows that your brain makes more of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin on sunny days. This is due to the role sunlight has in regulating serotonin production. Serotonin is a neurochemical that does many different things in your brain and body, and it greatly influences mood. Your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which primarily controls your personality and executive functioning, relies heavily on serotonin.
There are several theories that attempt to explain the positive effect that being outdoors has on mental capabilities. One theory, the Attention Restoration Theory (ART), proposes that exposure to nature is not only relaxing but can also improve focus and concentration. ART was developed and popularized by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan in the late 1980s as people — especially children — spent more and more time inside.
ART hypothesizes that nature has the capacity to renew attention after a person exerts mental energy in the constant stimulation of man-made environments. Your directed attention is a limited resource that supports both executive functioning and self-regulation processes in cognition. Some studies suggest that natural environments can restore depleted attentional resources.
Teaches You Mindfulness
Gardening can help you learn mindfulness and incorporate it into your life. You might enjoy reading my article, Lessons From the Garden, about the wisdom I’ve gathered from my gardening accomplishments and accidents. In short, there are many ways gardening encourages mindfulness:
- Tending a garden can give you a sense of purpose and responsibility. After all, taking care of plants is a good way to learn responsibility for taking care of other things. The plants need you.
- A garden is non-judgemental. It doesn’t care what you look like, how much money you have, or anything else.
- When gardening, you have to stay present and focused on the task before you. If not, you might think a plant is a weed and pull it or step on one of your youngsters.
- You can’t help but be grateful for and in awe of the food you harvest from your garden.
- A garden teaches you non-attachment. It grows and then, dies with the seasons.
Gardening is especially good for children.
It shows children how their actions can lead to positive results while also teaching them the importance of taking care of the environment. One study on the effects of green spaces on inner-city children sought to determine the impact of nature on children’s self-discipline. In the study, children who had exposure to green spaces improved self-discipline in three areas:
- Delaying gratification
- Inhibiting initial impulses
- Boosting concentration
Gardening involves physical movement ranging from stretching, bending, and lifting to vigorous aerobic work, like tilling a garden the old fashioned way — with a shovel and sweat. (I can tell you from experience, that one is a back-breaking workout!) All of these count as exercise and benefit your body and mind. Gardening can be purposeful exercise, and you get good stuff to eat!
I probably don’t have to tell you that exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain and mental health. Research shows that exercise improves memory and thinking skills, mood and creativity, and learning while reducing depression, age-related decline, and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The article, Get Fit by Gardening, offers the following advice:
Make your gardening into a structured exercise routine, alternating light activities with heavier ones, then a light one, and so on. Rake for a while, then dig holes, then prune. Exercise 30 to 60 minutes, then quit, whether everything is planted or not… concentrating on deep breathing while you work — and increasing your range of motion, exaggerating the raking motion or the digging motion. ‘You can use up 500 calories an hour that way,’ he says (official counts put gardening activities at the 100 to 200-per-hour calorie-burning level).”
Soil May Act as an Antidepressant
Just like your gut, your garden has a microbiome and research suggests that it helps your mental and emotional well being. In studies with mice, a “friendly” bacteria commonly found in soil activated brain cells to produce more serotonin and altered the mice’s behavior in a way similar to antidepressants. In other tests, mice fed the bacteria completed mazes twice as fast and showed less anxiety. The bacteria has proven to boost the immune system in humans.
Spending time in the garden is an easy way to boost your physical and mental well being. So, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty!
Patrick Bailey is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He enjoys writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them.
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