By Marissa Katrin Maldonado
I think we can all agree that life can get really crazy. With the onslaught of never-ending demands on our time and energy we may find ourselves in stress overload. Ramped up stress can trigger the body’s chemical response, the cortisol hormone, and in what seems like an instant the anxiety symptoms of a racing heart, heart palpitations, perspiration, a flushed face, trembling, and shortness of breath can ensue.
Unbelievably, our emotional state is capable of causing this intense physical response. Emotions of fear, excessive worry, and stress overload can conspire to wreak havoc on our cardio-pulmonary system, producing such powerful symptoms that can mimic a heart attack. Anxiety can impact our physical being in other ways as well, from tense neck and shoulder muscles to digestive issues and more.
Since it is difficult to make significant changes to our long list of daily obligations and family responsibilities, finding natural, self care habits and holistic methods to mitigate the symptoms of stress and anxiety is an excellent strategy. One of the most enjoyable and fulfilling anxiety-reducing options is the practice of gardening. Who knew that sitting in the dirt in grubby jeans and rubber gloves could actually offset the nasty effects of anxiety?
How Gardening Can Reduce Anxiety
Close your eyes and imagine being outdoors on a beautiful, sunny day. Imagine a soft breeze against your face and all the sweet sensory delights that surround you—birds singing, butterflies floating by, and the aroma of blooming roses, jasmine, or gardenia. Does this not conjure up a sublime “happy place”? In fact, as you sit in this delightful mental imagery you are most likely feeling relaxed and calm.
The effects of gardening, being physically out there in that happy place nurturing plants, can do wonders as an antidote to stress and anxiety. Just being outside in nature is beneficial for boosting mood and vitamin D levels. But practicing gardening, the action of physically tending to plants, can yield powerful and positive brain-body responses.
There is something very satisfying about planting something and then cultivating the resulting plants or flowers over time. This primeval practice of growing things from the earth stokes our desire to make something out of nothing. The idea of using the act of gardening to help us through a difficult emotional time or to relieve intense stress is a natural remedy that is as effective as it is enjoyable.
Being outside in nature is healing, calming. It doesn’t have to be a National Park for you to experience the emotional benefits associated with nature. It can be a small plot in your yard where you grow your own fresh veggies, or flower boxes hanging outside your windows where you create visual accents of floral beauty. These little touches of greenery you have grown with your own two hands can literally reduce your cortisol levels and promote relaxation.
Experimental Evidence that Gardening Reduces Anxiety
A recent study published in the Journal of Health Psychology demonstrated how gardening can do exactly that, reduce cortisol production. The study involved thirty participants whose salivary cortisol levels and their self-described mood were recorded at the outset. In the first part of the study they were given a stress-inducing task, after which cortisol and mood were recorded. Following the stressful activity the group was asked to either participate in gardening or reading for a 30-minute period, and the cortisol levels were again recorded.
While each of the activities, gardening and reading, led to decreased cortisol levels, there was a significantly enhanced reduction in cortisol among the study participants who had gardened versus those who read. This provides real evidence of the anxiety-reducing potential of using gardening to increase neuroendocrine levels, reduce cortisol levels, and help control stress levels.
7 Ways to Maximize the Anxiety-Reducing Powers of Gardening
- Unplug. It is no secret that our devices can fuel stress and anxiety. The incessant notifications demand we turn away from whatever we are doing or whoever we are talking to, robbing us of the ability to connect. When it comes to connecting with nature through gardening, the cell phone is not welcome. To achieve the kind of quiet calm you are seeking, leave that stress-inducing thing inside the house, and turn the ringer off as well for good measure.
- Practice mindfulness. Allow yourself to bask in the peacefulness of your garden by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness involves training oneself to rein in all those distracting thoughts that keep our minds racing and our stress level high and focus on the here and now. While gardening, don’t let the opportunity for relaxation be sabotaged by anxious thoughts. Focus on the present moment, your breathing, and the sensations of sight, sound, smell, and touch of all the beauty that surrounds you.
- Express yourself creatively. Maybe you have always admired those beautiful English gardens, with the mix of lovely wildflowers creatively grouped. Or maybe you love the geometric aesthetic of succulents and cacti, in addition to their water-conserving properties. Make a statement in your garden by letting your creative juices flow. Design a color palette and a theme for the garden space and make selections accordingly.
- Decorate. These days there are all sorts of decorative touches to give your garden statement extra punch. Slowly add little flourishes to accent the space with, such as colored bark, river rocks, statues, potted plants, fountains, a mini-windmill, or garden sculptures. The process of decorating your pretty garden will add your personal touch and make working in the garden even more rewarding as it evolves to represent who you are.
- Keep it manageable. Don’t let your gardening become a new source of stress by biting off more than you can chew. Plan in advance how much time you will be devoting to maintaining the garden space, as that will help determine the size of your project and the types of plants you buy. If growing vegetables, start small with just a couple of plant beds with 6-8 varieties of veggies. By keeping the gardening project manageable you will enjoy the benefits without the stress.
- Include music. Soft, mellow music can add another layer of anxiety reduction to your gardening. A portable speaker placed nearby with soothing spa music, nature sounds, or soft vocals will enhance your time outdoors and probably extend it longer. You won’t want to leave such a quiet and serene space anytime soon.
- Take ownership. There is something very gratifying about planting a garden—including bulbs and flowers or vegetables from seed. From amending the soil to planting to fertilizing and insect abatement, all steps of the process required time and nurturing. Smile when you grab some fresh ingredients for your salad, acknowledging your botanical success. Step back and look with wonder and pride at what you were able to create out of nothing, and all the while reducing the effects of anxiety in your life.
About the Author
Marissa Katrin Maldonado has been working in the behavioral healthcare industry for over 12 years. She is the founder of The Treatment Specialist, a national online resource and helpline for those seeking treatment and rehab for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, addiction, and most mental health conditions. Dedicated to guiding individuals to the help they seek, Marissa believes that with the right support and guidance, those struggling will have the opportunity to turn their lives around and enjoy a healthy and happy life. She is a proud mother and wife and enjoys long distance running, traveling, and music. For treatment resources visit: https://thetreatmentspecialist.com/