Spending time outdoors is proven to help relieve stress and increase mental wellness. Exposure to soil, sunlight, and nature stimulates the release of neurotransmitters that help to reduce anxiety, depression, and Seasonal Affective Disorder. Put your mental health first and get some self-care in by going out in your backyard and digging in the garden or taking a tour of a public garden nearby.
Many of us garden-lovers have experienced the powerful positive effects of gardening on our own mental health. In everything we do here at Garden Therapy, we touch on living better through plants. We truly believe in nature’s ability to help us through all different kinds of hard times. Mental health is no joke and you will have certainly been touched in some way by anxiety, depression, or PTSD through your own experiences or those of family and friends.
Gardener extraordinaire Shawna Coronado is here to tell us more about the science of how spending time in the garden can improve mental wellness. To learn more about therapeutic gardening for both physical and mental health, be sure to check out Shawna’s wonderful book The Wellness Garden: Grow, Eat, and Walk Your Way to Better Health. Read on to understand the science behind why strolling through a meadow can boost your mood greatly and why gardening for mental health is so worthwhile.
Reducing Anxiety and Depression with Green Activities
By Shawna Coronado
A therapeutic garden is defined as a space where you can accomplish gardening and green activities which specifically address a person’s psychological, spiritual, physical, and social needs. Therapeutic gardening doesn’t have to take place in a traditional garden space: it can occur in many outdoor landscaped areas, green spaces, and even through activities which can be accomplished in a public garden or open park expanse.
Discovering an outdoor place where you can connect with nature therapeutically while doing green activities can be life changing. These “green activities” could be as specific as gardening, walking, running, or cycling in nature, or they can be more widely interpreted in environmental conservation work.
Fighting Depression with Brain Neurotransmitters in the Garden
While we know that the bacterium strain Mycobacterium vaccae has been shown to trigger the release of serotonin when a person has direct skin-to-soil contact, there is also further proof that dopamine levels increase in the brain when we participate in green activities.
Both serotonin and dopamine are pleasure-center neurotransmitters which are associated with happiness, pleasure, and love. Serotonin specifically regulates mood, memory, and impulse. Dopamine is closely tied to euphoria, enjoyment, and motivation. Dopamine is also responsible for those magical feelings of “falling in love.”
When depression is caused by a chemical imbalance, it is often associated with an insufficient level of dopamine in the brain, so getting your hands dirty and increasing those dopamine and serotonin levels can help to relieve this type of depression.
Sunlight and Serotonin
Another proven serotonin stimulator is sunlight. By exercising outdoors in the garden or walking outdoors daily, you are exposing yourself to the daylight spectrum. It is a good practice to expose yourself to daylight without sunglasses for 20 minutes every day.
Dr. David Edelberg, M.D., confirms in his book The Triple Whammy Cure that improving serotonin levels can reduce stress levels. The book, although applicable to most people, focuses on women’s health. Dr. Edelberg states that the more serotonin you have, the better you are able to tolerate all types of extreme stress. He also proposes that women have less serotonin than men do, which makes them more susceptible to stress-related issues in general. He encourages everyone to try daily sunlight exposure.
Sunlight exposure also appears to be an effective treatment for winter-based seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This particular type of depression is related to changes in the seasons, starting as the daylight ebbs in fall and stretching through the season until there is more daylight exposure after winter. SAD saps energy and can make you feel moody and sorrowful. Taking part in green activities outdoors with regular exposure to daylight has a significantly positive effect on the symptoms of SAD.
There are certain eye conditions, such as macular degeneration, that worsen with exposure to sunlight. If you suspect you have this condition or something similar, please contact your doctor for advice before spending more time in the sunlight. Also, it is very important to wear sunscreen while working outdoors. This is critical even on cloudy days as the sun’s rays are powerful and can easily overwhelm precious skin when least expected.
Engaging with Nature: Get Outside and Get Moving!
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistical website, data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 2005 to 2008 show that antidepressant use has increased significantly: “About 1 in 10 Americans aged 12 and over takes anti-depressant medication.”
While there is no doubt that the stigma related to mental illness issues is dissipating, which encourages proper medication when necessary, it becomes critical to learn new ways to reduce pharmaceutical dependency whenever possible.
It is possible to reduce anxiety, depression, and related medication use by increasing green activities and enabling people to find an alternative path to their personal wellness lifestyle.
“Mind” is an organization in the United Kingdom that assists millions of people online to learn how to cope with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Mind also provides support directly through local chapters and conducts treatment studies through the University of Essex.
In one such report, “Ecotherapy—the Green Agenda for Mental Health,” 94 percent of test subjects commented that they felt green exercise had furthered their mental health in a positive way. Additionally, the study stated that participants felt their physical health improved with outdoor walking. Respondents also reported decreased levels of depression and felt less fatigued and tense after walking outside, with increased mood and self-esteem.
In other words, outdoor activities such as gardening and walking can significantly influence your state of mind by triggering dopamine and serotonin levels and by connecting a person’s very soul to the natural outdoor environment.
Printed with permission from The Wellness Garden: Grow, Eat, and Walk Your Way to Better Health by Shawna Coronado, © 2017. Published by Cool Springs Press. Photography © Shawna Coronado 2017.
Whether you’re looking to reduce anxiety and depression through gardening or just burn off some excess stress, get outside and get your hands in the dirt!
If you deal with mental illness, we hope that something in this article will be useful to you. Seeking out the help you need, whether by surrounding yourself with nature, confiding in a loved one, or talking to a professional (or all of these!) is an important and brave first step towards healing.
About the Author
Shawna Coronado is an author, columnist, blogger, photographer, and spokesperson for organic gardening, culinary preparation, and green living who campaigns for social good. Shawna’s goal in authoring gardening and green lifestyle books is to promote a world initiative to encourage healthy and sustainable living. Shawna was featured as a Chicago Tribune “Remarkable Woman” and speaks internationally on building community, simple urban garden living, and green lifestyle tips for the everyday person. Shawna lives in the western suburbs of Chicago where she has a famous front-lawn vegetable garden. You can learn more about her at www.shawnacoronado.com.