How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
What’s the equivalent of a green thumb for anxiety? A shaking thumb? That’s me.
I’ve lived with anxiety and depression since childhood, and it’s an ongoing challenge to find new ways to cope. From therapy and stress management classes to exercise (when I’m not too depressed to do so) and medications, I’ve been working at it for a long time.
Still, I realize every day that there’s something new I can try to improve my overall well-being and reduce my anxiety levels.
My anxiety brings on obsessive negative thought patterns, excessive worrying, and paralyzing panic attacks. Gardening delivers sustenance, beauty, and self-esteem — all counterpoints to my anxiety.
The benefits of gardening for your mental health
I know what you must be thinking: Gardening? If you don’t already have an interest in nurturing plants, you might mostly know it as your parents’ or grandmother’s favorite way to spend a weekend. But gardening — and its rewards — are for everyone.
In fact, it may provide some mental health benefits for you.
- reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
- improve attention
- interrupt harmful ruminations, a symptom of anxiety
- lower cortisol, the stress hormone
- lower BMI
- increase overall life satisfaction and quality of life
Soil has even been described as having antidepressant properties. Researchers found that bacteria found in the soil actually helped activate brain cells that could produce serotonin. That’s a pretty incredible addition to the sense of presence and mindfulness that gardening can bring.
Gardening has even been used as therapy across a number of different populations. For example, one study found gardening enhanced the psychosocial well-being of people in prison — and can even reduce recidivism rates.
Gardening, like other art therapies, differs from traditional therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), because it’s more indirectly beneficial. Rather than working through all of your problems with words, you cope with your hands.
Your plant could be hanging from a hook on your ceiling, and yet there’s something about gardening that’s so grounding. Gardening can focus your thoughts, keep your hands busy, and give you something to take care of in the future.
You can sow literal seeds as well as figurative ones for your self-esteem by developing a sense of purpose and achievement.
My thoughts feel clearer when I’ve finished digging through the dirt. And watching my plants grow feels a little like watching myself grow. I’m learning to cope with my anxiety as my cactus springs a flower.
Gardening doesn’t only have physical and mental therapeutic potential, but also utility. It gives me something in return: a beautiful patio, fresh herbs, or even homegrown veggies.
How to get started
When I picked up my first plant, I’d had plenty of experience with anxiety. But gardening? Not so much. So, where do you begin?
1. Start easy
Remember, if you’re using gardening to soothe your anxiety, you don’t want to start with something that’ll lead to more stress.
My first plant, tulips, was a gift. Those tulips and I shared two very stressful weeks… until I forgot about them, and they died.
Depending on your environment or ability to maintain your plants, don’t start with a difficult plant or flower. Start with easy ones. Think succulents, like aloe vera, cacti, and jade.
Succulents are hardy. They’re often “hard to kill” (though, I can confirm, not impossible), and are easy to maintain in an urban space.
Good plants for first-time gardeners include:
- lucky bamboo
- air plants
- snake plants
- rubber plants
Herbs considered easier to grow include:
When evaluating what plants to get, do a quick search on the watering frequency and any special needs of the plants. Succulents, for instance, need infrequent watering and can do poorly if watered daily. Nursery employees can also be a great resource of information.
2. Evaluate your space
Now that you have some ideas for plant types, think about the kind of space or natural light you have to offer them.
Do you have a garden plot to work with? A balcony? Hanging space? Table space? A desk?
I never thought my tiny balcony could be a small garden oasis, but now I’m surrounded on all sides by a variety of plants. There will always be a plant happy to thrive in whatever space you have to offer.
The lighting situation is important. No matter how much we’d hope for the perfect amount of sun, many places (especially at certain points throughout the year) are plagued by too little or too much sun. But even with a lack of natural light, you can find the right plant for you.
Succulents can typically handle a lot of sun. Some types can even be grown indoors, especially during winter, as they prefer hotter climates. Lucky bamboo can handle low light, although it may not grow as much without bright light.
Don’t forget to make space for yourself near your plants to revel in your work — and their beauty. My garden surrounds a small table and chair where I can sit with a cup of tea in the morning and read in the company of my little green accomplishments.
3. Don’t push yourself to pain
Don’t push yourself to garden in ways that will put you in pain. Remember, this is supposed to good for you, not painful.
If my back is aching or I’m tired after a physically or emotionally draining day, sometimes all I can do is lay a towel out and garden inside. Do what works for you.
If you have back issues, don’t force yourself to bend over a low-lying plot of dirt. Instead, use tall, raised beds, or focus on container gardening.
If you struggle with plants that need frequent watering, consider buying a self-watering pot or accessory that can make it as easy as possible.
4. Choose what makes you happy
Does gardening remind you of a loved one? Does the scent of a specific type of flower bring back joyful memories? Gardening can be a great opportunity to symbolize something special to you.
Consider picking scents, colors, or foods that make you happy. Think chamomile for a soothing scent and blues and greens for calming colors. Then choose the herbs or foods that would be beneficial for your kitchen, like basil or cucumbers.
I started with many succulents (green is coincidentally my favorite color) and basil for both the smell and taste.
Whatever you choose, make sure it’ll give your garden meaning and happiness.
Whether it’s watering a little desk plant, creating an urban or outdoor garden of your own, or simply taking more walks through nature, you can benefit from the plants around you.
Amid a day of anxiety, gardening makes me smile, gives me something to show for my efforts, and clears my mind.
Scientifically, gardening also comes with a number of health benefits that work to improve my anxiety.
Gardening is one of the most enjoyable tools in my arsenal that proves I have the power to control my mental health and anxiety. Having little successes — even if they’re shaped like a succulent — can truly calm your mind.
If you’re experiencing anxiety or have any other mental health concerns, check out our mental health resources for more information.
Jamie is a copy editor who hails from Southern California. She has a love for words and mental health awareness and is always looking for ways to combine the two. She’s also an avid enthusiast for the three P’s: puppies, pillows, and potatoes. Find her on Instagram.