Stress has a way of tearing down your body and your mind. Most of us know that the key to relaxing is to find some way to release tension, yet we struggle with coming up with an idea that seems worth the effort. Gardening might be the answer. Whether you manage a family plot of vegetables, do a bit of container or window box gardening, or simply plant a border around your front porch, gardening can truly be rewarding. Many people find that gardening can provide multiple ways to relieve stress.
The Nature Connection
Did you know that one of the signers of the American Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, recommended gardening/farming for the treatment of mental illness?(1) And now, as most of us who live in highly industrialized countries spend more and more of our time indoors, scientific studies have increasingly suggested a link between our constructed environment and lack of interaction with nature and increased stress and anxiety.(2) In fact, research has suggested that patients and visitors experience better health outcomes and reduced stress when nature is integrated in the hospital environment (for example, a nature video or a view of a garden).(3)
Recently, a study involving over 17,000 men and women suggested a connection between seasonal sunlight exposure, vitamin D, depression, and cognitive functioning.(4) One type of ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, UVB, is involved in the production of vitamin D in our bodies. Some research has shown that supplementing with vitamin D3 significantly improves mood, indicative of a link between vitamin D deficiency and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).(5)Additionally, some psychiatrists have suggested that this may explain the correlation between our increased time spent indoors, the use of sun-block while outdoors, and the dramatic increase in cases of major depression.(5)
Does this suggest that we should abandon the protections against the risks posed by overexposure to the sun? Not at all – with moderation and common sense, you can reap the mood-elevating benefits of both gardening and some minimal sun exposure. In fact, according to the Vitamin D Council, our skin produces approximately 10,000 IU vitamin D in 20–30 minutes of summer sun exposure. And the sun also helps us regulate our serotonin levels.(6)(7)
Gardening: Exercise with Purpose
Exercise is one of the best ways we can manage stress. Yet, many people can’t find the time to join a gym or incorporate a healthy exercise routine into their daily schedules. Gardening gives us a chance to get a bit of exercise while relaxing our minds. Even a small container garden gives you a reason to get your hands dirty and plant something.
Health benefits aside, some people find exercising on a machine leaves them without a sense of accomplishment. Gardening not only yields the long-term results of exercise, it also brings the reward of working with creative purpose.
Reaping the Benefits of Creative Focus
Perhaps one of the biggest sources of modern stress is that, even with all of the conveniences to which we have access, we never seem to get everything done. Paradoxically, the efficiency of modern life has increased our work loads – the more we can do, the more we have to do. Perhaps this is why it is also difficult for some people to disconnect from the apparatus of our work (like a cell phone or computer) to just exercise.The guilt we feel about leaving our work behind to take care of ourselves is only made worse by the guilt and health consequences we feel from not taking care of ourselves. The vicious cycle both creates and feeds stress.
But what if our exercise also created something tangible? What if it were an act of creating beauty or food, just as it creates health in our bodies? Might it not then create a positive cycle that de-stresses our minds?
Gardening offers just this – an antidote to the vicious cycle of stress. Planting a seed and focusing our efforts on nurturing it to fruition can satisfy our need for productivity with results that are naturally beautiful. Not only can we take pride in our immediate accomplishment, we can also feel good about supporting and relating with the environment. Our efforts, no matter how large or small, are an integral part of the larger ecology, interacting with insects, birds, wildlife, and the very elements of the earth around us.
You don’t need to be born with a green thumb to enjoy the many benefits that gardening provides, both physically and mentally. Grab a book, talk to the owner of your local nursery, or even contact your state’s cooperative extension for advice and how-to tips. If you live in a city with limited space, see if there are community gardens in which you can participate. This will offer you the stress-relieving benefits of social interaction as well. Soon, you’ll be reaping the tangible results of your efforts as you watch your flowers grow or relish a salad prepared with the vegetables you have grown.
- Kirby, Ellen and Peters, Elizabeth. Community Gardening. s.l. : Brooklyn Botanic Garden, , 2008. ISBN 1889538388, 9781889538389 .
- Chalquist, Craig. Ecopsychology: A Look at the Ecotherapy Research Evidence. Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. Publishers. [Online] June 2009. [Cited: November 1, 2009.] http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/eco.2009.0003. doi:10.1089/eco.2009.0003.
- Ulrich, Roger S., et al. Evidence-Based Design Resources for Healthcare Executives. Healthcare Leadership: A Review of the Research Literature on Evidence-Based Healthcare Design. [Online] September 2008. [Cited: November 1, 2009.] https://www.healthdesign.org/knowledge-repository/therapeutic-responses-natural-environments.
- Briffa, John. Sunlight improves brain function. The Epoch Times: Health. [Online] September 3-9, 2009. [Cited: November 1, 2009.] http://epoch-archive.com/a1/en/ca/yvr/2009/09-Sep/3/p13_sept3_252.pdf.
- Cannell, John Jacob. Vitamin D and Depression. Vitamin D Council: Vitamin D and Your Health – Mental Health. [Online] March 20, 2004. [Cited: November 1, 2009.]
- American, Scientific. Are Sunscreens Safe? Scientific American EarthTalk: Health & Medicine . [Online] July 22, 2008. [Cited: November 1, 2009.] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=are-sunscreens-safe.
- Bouchez, Colette. Serotonin: 9 Questions and Answers. WebMD: Mental Health Center – Recognizing the Symptoms of Depression. [Online] October 12, 2009. [Cited: November 1, 2009.]. http://www.webmd.com/depression/recognizing-depression-symptoms/serotonin?page=3