Petal Power: Why Is Gardening So Good For Our Mental Health and PTSD?

It seems that whenever I’ve had discussions with spiritually inclined individuals, it’s inevitable that someone makes a reference to being grounded or centered. Most people don’t question what this means, but somehow we all seem to know. Just saying or suggesting the two words seems to quickly bring about a sense of calm. Some people may think the terms are synonymous, but there are some distinctions.

Being grounded is the ability to be completely aware and conscious during the present moment. If you’re grounded, you practice a deep sense of mindfulness and rarely think about “what ifs.”

When you’re grounded, you’re in complete control of your mental and emotional self, and not easily influenced by other ideas or individuals. Those who are grounded allow life’s small mishaps to roll off their shoulders. For example, if someone cuts them off in a traffic circle, they may give a shoulder shrug, and think, “Oh, well, they must be in a hurry.” Chances are, they won’t become overwhelmed by, or reactive to, the incident.

I get my sense of being grounded from my garden and veggie patch. If I am having a bad day when I am dissociating a lot, when my Complex PTSD Disorder is really bad, I go out into the garden and start with the veggie patch, usually weeding first. I might spend an hour there as even the most mundane task of simply weeding can take an hour just to do one raised bed as I come in and out of dissociation. It is really a struggle to stay in the present. If it’s a change of season there may be a bed that needs to be cleaned out and planted for the coming season it is very therapeutic to plant new plants and see the bed taking shape. Giving new life to a bed is symbolic and reassuring as it reminds me that life goes on regardless of all that goes on around us or that has happened in the past. Weeding has the same effect. Weeding out the infected past and planting the fresh new plants is a symbol of what is come in the future.

I love pruning for the same reason. You cut off the dead wood of last season leaving the plant free to sprout its new shoots, fresh and free for the coming Spring. I particularly love this with Roses and Buddleia.  Picking up all the pruned wood and heaving it onto the bomb fire is itself therapeutic. Setting it alight and watching the old wood burning is very satisfying and I visualise aspects of my past going up in the flames and smoke.

When it comes to the harvesting of the garden the symbolism is even richer as the seeds of my effort grow and blossom. Some for picking and enjoying or just watching a tree in full bloom is exhilarating. Collecting produce from the veggie patch for consumption that actually feeds the family is very satisfying and gives me great gratification. Those days that I am so low I cannot leave the house but can go out into the garden and pick some vegetables I have planted to feed my family restores my soul. The garden is only one of many strategies I have to use to help in managing my Complex PTSD and Dissociative PTSD but each strategy is an important cog in the wheel towards recovery.

Gardening allows us all to be nurturers.

It doesn’t matter if we are seven or seventy, male, female or transgender, gardening underlines that we are all nurturers. Horticulture is a great equaliser: plants don’t give a fig who is tending them and for those with mental health problems to be able to contribute to such a transformative activity can help boost self-esteem.

Gardening keeps us connected to other living things.

Gardening can act as a gentle reminder to us that we are not the centre of the universe. Self-absorption can contribute to depression, and focusing on the great outdoors – even in the pared-down form of a patio – can encourage us to be less insular.

As long ago as 2003, research concluded that for those in mental health units and prison, the social nature of group gardening is beneficial because it centres on collective skills and aspirations rather than individual symptoms and deficits. Yet to dig and delve in a walled or fenced garden also helps to keep vulnerable people within boundaries both literally and metaphorically, allowing them to feel safe at the same time as they expand their horizons.

Gardening helps us relax and let go.

For many the peacefulness associated with gardening comes not from its social aspect however, but the opposite. It enables us to escape from other people. ‘Flowers are restful to look at. They have no emotions or conflict,’ said Freud. Tending to plants allows us to tap into the carefree part of ourselves with no deadlines, mortgage or annoying colleagues to worry about.

Moreover, the rhythmic nature of many tasks associated with horticulture – weeding, trimming, sowing, sweeping – allows thoughts to ebb and flow along with our movements. I often take to watering the plants in my patio when trying to untangle the knots in plots or characterisation that can arise when writing a novel, and all too often the solution comes to me far more easily there than if I sit staring and despairing at my screen. The competing thoughts inside my head somehow clear and settle, and ideas that are barely formed take shape.

Working in nature releases happy hormones.

To say that gardening encourages us to exercise and spend time outdoors might seem a statement of the obvious, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that what’s good for the body is also good for the mind. When I’m deeply immersed in writing it can be all too easy to forget this, but when we exercise levels of serotonin and dopamine (hormones that make us feel good) rise and the level of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress), is lowered. It’s true that a session in the garden can be tiring, but it can also get rid of excess energy so you sleep better and ultimately feel renewed inside.

6. Being amongst plants and flowers reminds us to live in the present moment.

As I explain in my little book on anxiety, ‘when we let go of ruminating on the past or worrying about the future and instead focus on the here and now, anxiety lessens’. So one of the best ways to calm the anxious mind and lift mood is to become more ‘present’. Next time you’re in a garden, pause for a few moments and allow yourself to be aware of your senses.

Listen. Touch. Smell. See.

Just a short time experiencing the fullness of nature like this can be very restorative.

Gardening reminds us of the cycle of life, and thus come to terms with that most universal of anxieties: death

.Rituals can help us work through difficult emotions, including grief, and gardening is a form of ritual involving both the giving of life and acknowledgment of its end; it’s symbolic of regeneration. It’s no coincidence we create gardens of remembrance and mark the scattered ashes and graves of our loved ones with roses, shrubs and trees; by doing so we’re acknowledging that from dust we all come and to dust we return.

Some aspects of gardening allow us to vent anger and aggression

Clearly then, horticulture is not all sweetness and light: nature has its dark side too. In a similar vein, some of the therapeutic power of gardening is that it allows us to unleash our anger and aggression as well as providing an opportunity to nurture. Why beat pillows with a baseball bat or yell at the cat when you have a hedge to hack? I confess there are times when I enjoy cutting and chopping and yanking and binding as much, if not more, than sowing and feeding and watering, and the great thing about destructiveness in the garden is that it’s also connected to renewal and growth – if you don’t cut back the plants, your space will be swamped by them.

Whilst others allow us to feel in control.

In a similar vein, anxious people often feel overwhelmed, and gardening can be a good way of gaining a sense of control. Moreover, whereas trying to control other people is invariably a fruitless exercise, you’re more likely to succeed in controlling your beds and borders, which can make gardening a particularly satisfying experience.

Last but not least, gardening is easy.

When it comes to growing things, for all its power of healing, the world of plants can feel intimidating to an outsider. If you’re new to gardening you may well be anxious you won’t have ‘green fingers’ and here, as with all new ventures: starting small is key.

You don’t need garden the size of a meadow to enjoy horticulture; you don’t even need a patio the size of mine (above).

Just one hanging basket or few pots along a window ledge can lift the spirits whenever you look at them, and if you’re strapped for cash, why not recycle an old container like a colander or ice-cream carton?

I also recommend looking for packets that say ‘Ideal for Children’ – who cares if you left school years ago? Nasturtium is a good bet, as are sweet peas, or, if you can find a patch of earth which gets the sunshine, try sowing sunflowers or poppies directly into the soil.

It’s the perfect time of year to get planting and gardening is a lot more affordable than many other forms of therapy, so why not grow yourself better by making an appointment with Mother Nature today?

Even if people see you as a grounded person, there may be times when you “out of sorts,” or stressed. However, there are different types of exercises you can do to help ground you, including:

1) Breathing exercises. There are many types of breathing exercises. Here are two examples—try the one that works best for you. To the count of ten, take a deep inhalation through your nose. Hold your breath for the count of ten. Now exhale through your nose for the count of ten. Repeat as often as needed. Another breathing exercise involves taking ten slow breaths, one at a time, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Then to the count of ten, exhale through your nose.

2) Walking meditation. This exercise is about using walking as your focus. Try walking slowly, being mindful of each step you take. Feel the ground beneath you. This is best done outside in nature, but you can really do it anywhere.

3) Play music. Play instrumental music and give it all your attention, noticing all the instruments and the mood of the music.

4) Stop and listen carefully. If you’re talking to others, listen carefully to every word they’re saying. Focus. If you feel inclined, write down the dialogue in your journal.

5) Sip a hot drink from a mug. Cup the mug in both hands, feeling its warmth. Drink the beverage slowly. Take small sips and notice how it feels in your mouth and how it goes down.

6) Tune into your senses. Stop and notice two things that you see, smell, hear, and taste. You might choose to write down your impressions in your journal.

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