April is National Stress Awareness and one of the recognised strategies to manage stress and improve mental health is spending time in Nature. There’s even a word for it – Ecotherapy, which is defined by Mind.org as…
“…a way of improving your wellbeing and self-esteem by spending time in nature. This can include physical exercise in green spaces or taking part in a gardening or conservation project” https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/stress/treatment-for-stress/#eco
So gardening is good for the soul (a secret all gardeners know!) But why should this be so?
As someone who has fairly strong mental health issues running in their family, and someone who runs a landscaping business, here are the top 5 ways I believe gardening can help your stress management.
Once the preserve of hippies and Buddhists, there is growing awareness of the power of mindfulness in everyday life. For the uninitiated, mindfulness is…
“…the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness and acceptance. You can purposefully bring your attention to your child’s smile, to the feeling of the steering wheel, or to the exhale of your breathing.” According to Ryan Niemiec in Psychology Today.
We’ve all sat in the garden and daydreamed, but what about sitting in the garden and paying attention? To the shapes and colours of the flowers, the sounds of birdsong or insects; the warmth of the sun or the cool of the breeze on your face; the smell of the grass and the earth.
What better place to ‘purposefully bring your attention’ than a garden, where Nature bombards each sense simultaneously? Even better, a garden can be nurtured to enhance a mindful experience; buying specific plants for colour and scent, for example, or building an insect hotel.
I’m sure you will have heard that meditating daily can help to improve your cognitive function . Your garden can be your sanctuary to cultivate a meditative mindset.
Many of you, like me, will enjoy walking in the country or visiting botanical gardens. Considered a form of torture by my younger self (‘it’s boring!’, ‘my legs are tired!’) this is a practise I have come to cherish over time.
Two of my favourite places to go in Durham are Crook Hall (http://crookhallgardens.co.uk/) and Low Newton Junction Nature Reserve (http://www.durham.gov.uk/article/3690/Nature-reserves). Visiting places like this, one tends to realise that Nature doesn’t sweat the small stuff. It makes no difference to the trees if you meet your deadlines, return those calls or clean your bathroom. Surrendering to the bigger picture for a couple of hours can be incredibly liberating and refreshing for the mind. As this reflection on Mind.org states…
“I’ve been getting out into nature and walking, either on my own or with dogs, to manage my bipolar disorder for years. It helps to keep me calm and physically healthy, and I love taking the time to be mindful of all the beautiful green spaces around me, even when living in a city. Watching the birds and squirrels always has a calming effect and takes me out of my own head. “
Two of the things that make gardening so great for self-esteem at first seem counter-intuitive to boosting confidence.
a) Gardening does not bring instant gratification, and
b) It never ends.
So how can something with no end or reward in sight make you feel good while doing it? The secret is time. Tending to anything (a plant, an animal, a human!) takes time. You need to do a little bit every day; watering, feeding , pruning, encouraging. It teaches patience, and when the payoff does finally arrive, whether it’s’ a 6ft sunflower, apple crumble made with home-grown fruit or using your own fresh herbs in a salad, it brings a profound sense of achievement. And when the plant dies back and the fruit falls, you know you have the skills to protect it over the colder months and bring it back next year. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Matt Hudson, author of ‘The Saboteur Within’ (http://www.saboteurwithin.com/) talks in his book about how working in his garden helped him to overcome a breakdown…
“I would dig and weed, day-by-day, little by little. Adding flowers here and there, thinking of nothing but the garden…and I realised that very slowly, little by little and bit-by-bit, I had transformed the whole garden.”
It’s common sense that as human beings we need to keep moving in order to stay at our optimum, both physically and mentally. The NHS recommends it as part of ongoing stress management…
“Participation in regular physical activity can increase our self-esteem and can reduce stress and anxiety. It also plays a role in preventing the development of mental health problems and in improving the quality of life of people experiencing mental health problems.” https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-to-using-exercise
I’m a runner and bootcamp babe, but plenty of people (including my husband Trevor!) prefer to get their exercise more organically. Gardening is one of those activities that really burns the calories in the fresh air and can be incorporated easily into your daily routine. A quick search on Google reveals you can even get gardening ‘workouts’, such as Garden your Way to Health & Fitness by Bunny Guinness and Jacqueline Knox (Timber Press). Also, it’s cheaper than the gym!
The inspiration for this blog came from seeing this, on an ordinary street, on the way home from the shops the other day.
Somehow, in between concrete blocks, on a bed of sand, in the shade of a hedge, kicked by feet and polluted by fumes, this little guy managed not only to survive, but thrive. Nature is a great reminder that no matter what the circumstances or what life throws at us, we can always find a way to blossom and create something new and beautiful.