Flower Power: The therapeutic benefits of nature
Nature and the garden
While some people find gardening a chore, others seem to take immense pleasure and much comfort in pottering around the garden. Mental health charities up and down the country are setting up ‘gardening’ projects and someone, somewhere, has invented a new kind of therapeutic intervention called ‘Ecotherapy’.
Getting down with nature for the benefit of our health is not a new concept. Ramblers in the UK, for example, have been campaigning around the health benefits of walking through the countryside since the 1930s. However more recent research has discovered why so many of us gravitate towards a few hours in the garden or a walk amongst greenery when we need to unwind, and the research confirms that it actually works!
Ecotherapy and mental health
So what is ‘ecotherapy’? Simply it is increasing or restoring well-being through contact with nature. This might be gardening, or walking up on the Downs, working on an allotment (alone or with others), tending to some pot plants, or any of a range of outdoor activities with nature.
Gardening and mental health
Let’s take gardening as an example. Like many so-called ‘diversionary activities’ it can be helpful to have ‘time off’ thinking about problems or stressful life events. However, gardening isn’t simply a distraction. It actually helps in positive ways. Through gardening we learn to express ourselves, learn about something new, improve our skills, and experience pleasure and pride in creating and looking after a growing, living thing.
In one study, 30 minutes of gardening provided more relief from stress than the same time spent quietly reading, as measured by cortisol levels (the stress hormone) in the body. Another study at the University of Essex* in 2013 found that 70% of people who took part in an Ecotherapy project experienced significant increases in mental well-being by the end of the project.
How gardening works psychologically
Human beings tend to enjoy the opportunity to be nurturers of living things, whether that is a pet, a human companion or child, or plants. It can be especially important for those with limited social connections to feel connected to other living things. The process encourages us to look outwards, rather than inwards and to focus energy on creating and maintaining a garden. What’s great about nature is that it’s free or pretty cheap to access, and gardening can be cheap too. In fact, you don’t even have to have a garden. Small plants in jam jars on a window ledge is a fine way to start a relationship with nature.
Gardening can be social
As we’ve already seen gardening is proven to provide relief from stress. It lowers our cortisol levels. For some it can provide an escape from people; for others involved in more group gardening or allotment schemes it offers the opportunity to be sociable. Plants are restful. As Freud said ‘they have no emotions or conflict’. It is difficult to have an argument with a flower.
Gardening is physical
A happy by-product of gardening is that it gets us moving and provides some gentle exercise. Again it is proven that gentle exercise is one component that has beneficial results for people experiencing depression or stress. Gardening and other nature-based activities can also act a bit like meditation in that they pull us gently into living in the present moment. We can become absorbed in the sights, textures, and smells of the plants around us, instantly feeling calmed.
Gardening provides a release
At the opposite end of the emotional scale, gardening can help us vent angry feelings. Especially when there is a large hole to dig, hedges that need cutting back, or invasive weeds to yank out. For others it helps to nurture a sense of being in control of our environment. What better way to help us make sense of a chaotic world than by organising and nurturing a flower bed, with all its boundaries and edges, and weeds to keep at bay.
Head to the garden
So gardening, or other activities which allow us to spend time in nature, can have hugely restorative health benefits. It can increase our self-esteem and lift our mood. It can calm a stressed mind and body and offer fringe benefits such as solitude (if we need it) or company (if we need it), and it helps us engage our bodies in gentle (or sometimes not so gentle!) movement. It allows us to nurture a living thing that needs our care and attention to survive, and in whose development we can take pride. I certainly can’t imagine my consulting room without a few plants to bring a little bit of nature into the room.
* Feel better outside, feel better inside: Ecotherapy for mental wellbeing, resilience and recovery (University of Essex, 2013)