Growing with therapy - how being outdoors can keep us grounded
Since garden centres reopened their doors in June, many of them have been struggling to keep up with our demand for their green products. During lockdown, many of us took to our outside space as a preferred way to fill the day.
Some got their exercise from gardening in preference to other forms of activity which was, let’s face it, limited to one hour a day. The unusually warm spring weather invited us to eat our meals al fresco. Never before had we had so much time to notice the ecosystem surrounding us. As the pandemic escalated BBC’s Springwatch presenters eagerly reported that our new, slower life was boosting wildlife around us.
The positive effects of gardening
Studies have shown that time spent gardening can significantly reduce feelings of stress or anger and help to increase mood and feel more relaxed. Here’s a more detailed look at why this might be:
1. Nurturing nature
Gardening can be a long-term commitment, a labour of love. A little like becoming a parent. Plants require attention, care and planning. Life before lockdown seemed to become more and more hectic; “I can’t believe it’s nearly Christmas” was a phrase wheeled out every year as we were dismayed that almost four seasons had passed since last December. Gradually as a proud gardener, you develop a heightened awareness of the changing of the seasons. You start to anticipate any seasonal changes that may hamper the progress of your beloved plants. The opportunity to nurture our natural surroundings can often feel like we are providing ourselves with loving care.
2. Practising patience
Patience, they say, is a virtue; an admirable quality that some possess but eludes others especially when we’re feeling life’s pressures. Either way, this saying is a reflection upon our ability to wait without agitation and overcome the irresistible pull of impatience. Whether you are replanting a border or growing tomatoes on your windowsill from seed, it will be an arduous task if your impatience gets the better of you. Somehow as your tomato plants grow, so will your patience as you start to enjoy the incremental rewards of the process as much as the anticipation of the end result.
3. Preparing for imperfection
Given the number of things that are out of their control, gardeners are less likely to struggle with the frustrations and anxiety that come with perfectionism. The reality of gardening is that there are potential pitfalls and the most meticulous forward planning may not avoid them. Despite all your soil preparation, watering and feeding, you may be left with a batch of dying tomato plants, attacked with blight, not the tomato soup or salad you’d dreamed of. It’s a relief to know that, where gardening is concerned, you can put any tendency for perfectionism on the back burner.
4. Moving closer to wildlife
The mental health benefits of attracting wildlife and seeing it thrive before your eyes are widely celebrated. If you’re lucky enough to have a garden or outside space, it will potentially be visited like a playground by all sorts of wildlife. Garden birds may survey your surroundings with a view to “setting up home” and building a nest to raise their next generation. You may find yourself making a concerted effort to provide respite to our fading bee population. It is an unconscious exercise not only in attracting and keeping wildlife in your vicinity but playing your part in continuing life.
5. Escaping the house
Not only does sunlight provide essential vitamin D, but it also helps keep your serotonin up. This helps to raise your energy levels and calm your mood. Increased oxygen levels of the great outdoors aid resetting of disrupted sleep cycles. Studies have shown that time in nature can boost creative problem-solving, this is partly because it engages your attention in a “quiet” way so that your senses have a chance to refocus. This could be just the physical and psychological lift you need between counselling sessions.
6. It counts as exercise
If you are trying to maintain a healthy amount of exercise in your week to keep your mood up and lower your stress levels, it really is ok to count gardening as part of your regimen. If you’re outside, surrounded by nature, you’re far more likely to be exercising and far less likely to feel like you are! Whether it’s taking a walk, mowing the lawn or tackling the weeding, it’s likely you are using energy and getting the blood pumping.
7. Connecting with others
One day during lockdown, I found a courgette plant on my front doorstep. I later discovered it was left there as a gift by a kind neighbour who realised she didn’t have the space for all the plants she had grown from seed. During a time when I only saw my neighbours once a week on a Thursday at 8pm while we applauded the front-line workers, this gift was an indication that we might be able to see one another again soon to discuss the progress of our plants. We have since swapped stories over the fence about our gardening successes - and laughed about our failed crops. A strong connection with your counsellor will enhance the success of therapy. Regular connection with those around you in your everyday life is likely to have the same effect.
8. Escaping the world of technology
If you find it difficult to switch off from the demanding alerts from your phone, gardening may be the answer. A constant barrage of notifications can lead to increased stress levels. This can contribute to a higher likelihood of anxiety and depression. The quiet concentration required for gardening tasks, not to mention the bulky gloves, can be a natural deterrent to reaching for the phone. Not dissimilar to the quiet, surroundings of the counselling room, being outside provides a release from the intrusion of the electronic kind.
As we gradually navigate the ever-changing restrictions, counselling, like gardening, goes a long way to providing the uninterrupted space you need to peacefully emerge from these difficult times. Whatever may bring you to counselling, please get in touch with a therapist for a confidential chat about how online counselling may be able to help you.
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