Mental health benefits bloom with gardening, as study prescribes ecotherapy for loneliness

Feelings of control, stability and hope can help young people become more attentive and feel less isolated, experts say

Gardening requires people to use their non-dominant hand, which is a good physical and cerebral exercise. Photo: CDC / Unsplash
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A four-year project led by University College London found that teenagers are missing out on the benefits of “social prescribing”. This is described by the National Health Service in England as an approach that connects people to activities, groups and services in their community to meet their practical, social and emotional needs.

Gardening is one of the activities the project prescribes, alongside fishing and going to a museum, and it's especially well suited to children and young people who feel lonely or isolated.

“The benefits of gardening really are prodigious,” says Adam Griffin, head of occupational therapy at Camali Clinic, a centre for child and adolescent mental health in the UAE. “Not only can the exertions involved in digging, weeding, planting and pruning help your physical health, but they can also have a very positive impact on your mental health.”

Here are some benefits of horticulture therapy, also known as ecotherapy.

Feeling in control

Those with low self-esteem, high anxiety or learning difficulties may find that gardening is a great levelling ground. Being able to contribute to a meaningful activity can be cathartic by boosting confidence and clarity. A simple activity such as being able to monitor the amount of water given to a potted plant or bed of flowers also leads to a greater sense of control – an important psychological counter for those who are often overwhelmed by their ­feelings.

Forming meaningful connections

Biophilia dictates that we're ­instinctively drawn to connect with other ­living, growing things. In 2003, occupational therapist and researcher Jon Fieldhouse, from the University of the West of England, Bristol, published a paper about the plant-person relationship that showed people have a “fascination” with plants. A meaningful connection results in improved mood and concentration, and as the relationship flourishes, it helps people to focus on their skills, rather than their deficits.

“Gardening shows us that we are but a small part of nature, and getting over feelings of insularity and self-absorption,” says Malati Jagasia, a child psychologist based in Mumbai.

Griffin adds: “In a similar way to having a pet, gardening can help nurture one's mind, by providing a connection to another living thing.”

Boosting happy hormones

Exposure to green spaces has been proven to cause a dip in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which controls moods, memory and immunity. ­“Gardening can be a positive escape from the stress many of us take for granted as a part of modern living,” says Griffin. “Even Sigmund Freud spoke of the relaxing benefits of gardening, saying: 'Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts.' No matter your age, it can be a time when you leave your worries behind. All the bills, exams, deadlines and a thousand other daily responsibilities we have can be left at the proverbial garden gate.”

As far back as 1983, healthcare design researcher Roger ­Ulrich proposed the stress-­reduction theory, which suggests we're predisposed to find natural stimuli non-threatening, and that exposure to these stimuli has an immediate effect, boosting feelings of well-being and relaxation. Additionally, levels of serotonin and dopamine – the hormones that make us feel good – go up when we exercise, dissolving tension, anger or confusion. “It's simply a question of taking people's minds off their problems,” says Jagasia.

Outlet to vent

Nature is not all sweetness and light – a big part of gardening involves force, and activities such as weeding, hacking and chopping can allow people to unleash their anger or frustration in a controlled ­environment. “You need to be destructive to be constructive in a garden, without feeling any guilt or confusion over it,” adds Jagasia.

Reaping the rewards

As a garden or plant thrives, so grows a gardener's confidence in their capabilities and strengths, leading to a sense of ­accomplishment.

Anne Love, author of ­Gardening in Oman and the UAE, says: “When you invest time and effort into growing plants, you feel a sense of ownership and pride, and this helps you feel you belong to a place. Every day when you check on your plants, you will notice differences – a new bud forming, or your herbs need cutting – and that is a very pleasing, rewarding experience.”

Griffin adds: “Engagement in a meaningful activity is a prerequisite for good mental health. Gardening is a perfect example. Whether this is a small window box, a patch of herbs or a large back garden, a little time spent getting your hands dirty can be a fruitful investment.”

Fighting fit

“Gardening gives you a purpose to be outside in the sun and wind and fresh air, moving about,” says Love. So whether you're stretching to pick up a bag of fertiliser or bending over to sow a few seeds, gardening is a great way to burn calories.

It's also an activity that allows you to use your non-dominant hand, which is a good exercise to keep your brain engaged. It can expose you to immunity-building vitamin D and “friendly” allergy-fighting bacteria – Mycobacterium vaccae – commonly found in soil.

Stable environment

“The demands of modern society, and meeting the expectations of peers and superiors, can be a source of much distress, especially for those who are already struggling with wayward emotions,” says Jagasia.

Plants are much less frightening and challenging than people, and provide an escape route from our own thoughts, as well as other people's judgments. The connection and communication take place on a safer, simpler level, and this leads to a sense of stability and self-worth.

Attention restoration

The attention restoration theory, developed by psychology professors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, suggests that people have two types of attention: directed attention and fascination. The former is limited and can be overloaded by stress, causing mental fatigue, with the latter then used to restore mental order.

Fascination is dominant in natural environments such as gardens, which have restorative qualities that affect our concentration levels, memory and problem-solving abilities. “The higher your attention span, the more able you are to live in the present, which is a crucial requirement for overall emotional health,” says Jagasia.

Updated: May 27, 2024, 10:02 AM