How Gardening Could Help To Cure Depression

Go green to ban the blues

Have you ever felt that dark cloud above you? I’m not talking about feeling a little sad – we all get blue sometimes. That’s just natural. For some people, however, that feeling of being low is something else entirely. Because when that cloud starts to last a lot longer and sinks a lot lower – until it’s all around you, it’s all you can see – that’s depression. And it’s not a nice place to be.

For years, doctors, psychiatrists and self-help gurus have been providing a variety of therapies and mood-altering drugs to try and get individuals back to their old selves. But what works for one person rarely works for another, and often anti-depressants come with a list of side effects longer than your average five-year-old’s Christmas list.

Fortunately, there’s another, less harmful, therapy available.

Gardening as therapy

Because in recent years, a number of studies have suggested that one form of therapy for depression could be very close to home. As close as the back yard, in fact. What is it? Gardening, of course! (I mean, what did you expect? This is a gardening website, after all).

You probably knew that gardening was good for your physical health. (Just look at your Grandad’s biceps!) But apparently, all that weeding, pruning and planting is great for your mental health, too!

Is there anything that gardening can’t make better?! Is it time we start writing prescriptions for garden time?

What the surveys say

Happy Graph
The graph says smiley times ahead.

In a Bakker Spalding study, 88% of the people surveyed believed “improved mental wellbeing” to be a major benefit of spending more time in the garden.

Another survey, conducted by Gardener’s World magazine, showed that gardeners score higher than the average joe when asked a) how worthwhile they believe their lives to be and b) how satisfied they are with life in general. It seems that Green Fingers = Happy Campers all round.

Plants are easier than people

Smiling leaf
What a friendly leaf. Hello Mr Leaf.

Forcing yourself to get up and go outside is often hard for sufferers of depression; after all, facing people tends to be the last thing you want to do. Getting up and facing plants is a much easier step. And as Laozi, that old Chinese quote factory, said, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

The thing is, plants are much less challenging, confusing and frightening to deal with than people. Being amongst nature is also a way to escape other people’s thoughts and judgements.

After all, roses never give you a strange look, tulips never look down their noses at you (probably due to their lack of noses) and sure, thorns can be prickly… but they’ll never pretend to be anything else. With plants, you know exactly where you stand. (Or squat.)

Bonus: A gardener’s work is never done

feeding a bird with hands
"Mmmm... crumbs. My favorite. How did you know?"

One of the biggest drivers of the rising global epidemic of depression is the feeling that you’re not contributing to the world, that if you simply ceased to exist, nothing would change. It’s existentialism, squared.

Gardening can, in a small way, combat that negative thought pattern. Because looking after a garden is a way to feel needed and vital – something that many people lack today. A garden needs its gardener. The old adage is very true: a gardener’s work is never done. Plants need water, bird feeders need refilling, fish need feeding, roses need deadheading, the grass needs mowing. The list goes on and on.

Gardening can be your Ikigai

ikigai book on table
Reading this book is another reason to get out of bed.

As a gardener, you’re never in want of task to put your mind to. And if you have a role, something to get up for in the morning you tend to be happier. The Japanese have a word for this: ikigai. Which roughly translates as a purpose.

An ikigai can be big or small. It could be a drive to save the planet by recycling one soda can at a time… or it could be a desire to make sure your roses are looking their best.

These purposes might sound insignificant – but studies have found that having a reason to get out of bed, even one as seemingly mundane as watering the roses, can start a positive chain reaction. So watering the roses can actually lead to you smelling the roses. Or wearing rose-tinted glasses. Or whatever other rose analogies spring to mind!

About therapeutic horticulture

Now, that is a well cared for little flower.

Researchers have shown that actively caring for plants can have an incredibly therapeutic impact on individuals who suffer from raised levels of anxiety, stress and depression.

So-called “therapeutic horticulture” and “horticultural therapy” have become recognised and increasingly widely prescribed treatments for stress and depression. Gardening activities have even been extended into prisons, mental health treatment facilities and schools. Sounds like people are finally giving this form of therapy the recognition it deserves.

The role of green spaces

squirrel in park
Have you ever seen a sad squirrel? No, me neither.

Gardens and green spaces have always been designed as retreats from the hustle and bustle, those stresses and strains, of modern life. Just think of the immediate sense of calm you get when you step off the busy sidewalk and on to the grass in your local park.

Being amongst nature, be it the wilds of a national park or just the squirrels near the local duck pond, has been shown repeatedly to lower cortisol levels and reduce stress. In fact, studies have shown that just being shown photos of nature is enough to reduce feelings of anxiety.

The power of the sunlight

There she is, out getting a good dose vitamin sunshine.

Plants need sunlight – it helps with that little thing called photosynthesis that you might remember from biology class. Humans tend to thrive on sunlight, too – which gives us a boost of Vitamin D and energy when we’re feeling a little low.

While gardening, you tend to spend quite a lot of time outside. So getting out of bed, into the sunlight, can be a huge help if you suffer from depression.

What’s more, depression is often linked to the inability to sleep. Because if you’re inside with your curtains drawn, without any exposure to daylight, your circadian rhythms get out of whack. Which makes it hard to sleep. Which can make you feel even worse.

It’s a negative feedback loop that’s hard to break. But getting your dose of sunlight in during the daytime – and exerting yourself enough so you can sleep at night – can be one of the best ways to pull yourself out of that dark hole.

Final Thoughts: Not a cure but a start.

Of course, gardening can’t cure depression. Depression isn’t like a broken leg, something with a simple cure. Depression is much more complicated and multi-faceted than that.

Gardening is, however, another weapon in the ongoing fight against rising global depression levels. Right up there with exercise and proper nutrition.

So if you, or someone you know, suffer from a condition that could be helped by a little green-fingered action, check out these great online resources offered by Thrive.

In the meantime, get out into the Great Outdoors (they’re called great for a reason), don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and spend some time connecting with the earth. Who knows, things might just start looking up after all.

Happy Gardening!

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