The gentle breeze wafting through my hair. The warm rays of the sun flitting through a canopy of trees. Butterflies dancing from flower bush to rose trellis. Birds chirping all around me. Bees buzzing about. A salad of thick red juicy slices of flavor-exploding tomatoes, chunks of jalapeno peppers, and ripe strawberries sitting next to me. This is nirvana. This is where I can relax.
(Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.)
While it might sound like I was at a 5-star spa resort or nature retreat, I was actually gardening at my far from 5-star abode. That brings me to Tool #3 in this series.
As someone who’s been through incredibly traumatic experiences, I’ve often faced extreme hopelessness. I’ve found that, as part of the process of cultivating new growth and life, gardening brings me hope. I see the cycle of plants blooming and withering and I know that I, too, go through these cycles.
Certain days or memories will make me feel like a tree losing all its leaves for the winter. But I know that that isn’t a permanent state.
Spring will come and I’ll feel alive and enthusiastic again, like the tiny new green leaves sprouting up from bare branches.
One of my friends commented awhile back that I don’t post enough pictures on Facebook of my garden. That sparked a contemplation on why I don’t show more of what has become to me a . . .
. . . very personally fulfilling practice.
Here’s what I wrote him:
"Lately, my garden plots haven’t been weeded and my pecan tree has begun to shed its leaves.
Those brown, yellow, and sometimes still greenish leaves are flying wild with the wind, invading everything including the strawberry and thyme patch.
And tons of obstinate, unwanted treelings have decided they're going to mess up all my nice foliage and shrubbery.
It's been a losing battle trying to keep the weeds and tree seeds from taking over everything.
After all, it's not like I have enough hours in the day to keep on top of gardening in addition to everything else that demands my time.
So that's why I haven't been posting more pictures."
Today I remembered what I’d written to my friend and now I’m seeing that the chaos of plants, weeds, and leaves are totally okay. That’s part of who I am: cluttered, disorderly, a stormy mess—and being okay with it (most of the time!).
My gardening efforts have become a symbolism of my evolution and an outward expression of my center: I constantly lose beloved seeds and plantlings to the heat waves or improper soil conditioning. My trees die on me, I think I’ve lost everything I’ve planted, and then all of a sudden some of them revive. While others are just not meant to be. . . .
Tool #3 – Gardening
Another huge benefit of gardening is that it lets me just be in the present. I can literally stop and smell the roses as I work. And I do! The more present I am, the more I find myself feeling and expressing gratitude for the good things in my life. It seems like a small thing, but this shift in mindset makes a huge difference throughout my day and week.
Along with being in the present (instead of a traumatic past or worrying future), gardening also gets the body moving. Remember the first tool—body movement—we discussed?
Carol S. Lee, who’s a clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, says that “gardening can decrease depression and anxiety” and points out that “along with the other benefits, gardening will also provide aerobic exercise—and movement is good for a healing body.”
Exactly how does gardening decrease depression and anxiety?
According to Lee, “from a clinical research perspective, the positive effects of gardening on anxiety make sense. Most obviously, gardening provides a way to engage with nature. As research on wilderness therapy, horticultural therapy, and urban green spaces indicate, spending time in nature is associated with increased emotion regulation, decreased neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (the area associated with rumination), and decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
To read the full article, which includes references to research studies, click here.
In another great article—on NPR—Kristofor Husted says that gardens are not only “sources of fresh and local food, but increasingly they’re also an extension of therapy for people with mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD; depression; and anxiety.” You can read Husted’s full piece here.
Husted also talks about the relatively new field of horticultural therapy and that studies are being conducted on whether the process of gardening (from planting to harvesting) can be therapy in its own right. Of course I say absolutely yes! It should be recognized as a legitimate form of therapy and all mental health professionals should recommend gardening to their post-traumatic stress clients.
Even if you don’t have outdoor space for a garden, you can create one indoors.
In my New York City apartment, I grow fresh herbs, sprouts, and yes, even strawberries!
There’s nothing like having fresh, organic food right in front of you, that you’ve grown yourself.
You can start very small and simple with just one pot, or you can volunteer at a community garden where you’ll easily find people to mentor you. Some community gardens in New York City and other urban areas even have chicken coops. There’s something about sticking your hands in the dirt that relaxes you that you can’t recreate in a traditional therapy setting.
The book Windowsill Whimsy, Gardening & Horticultural Therapy Projects for Small Spaces is also a wonderful way to get started by yourself. Its projects were designed “by professional horticultural therapists to be fun while serving as great physical, mental and social exercises for everyone”.
And here are some advertised as heirloom and non-GMO seeds for outdoor, indoor, hydroponic, and microgreen gardening. It’s an inexpensive starter pack of a variety of lettuce, or salad greens, and it’s almost impossible for something to not grow as long as you water them correctly.
Whether or not you think gardening is for you, I think it’s something everyone (trauma survivor or not) should give a try. It’s a good way to get outside, get moving, reconnect with nature, and most of all, socialize with other humans (if you volunteer in a community garden), which prevents isolation and debilitating depression.
Gardening. Drawing mandalas. Dancing. Maybe you’re not quite ready to give those a try. That’s okay. The next tool I’ll be sharing is something you can do from anywhere. It only takes 12 minutes and it doesn’t cost a dime. You don’t even have to get out of bed to give this one a try.
Stay tuned for this next tool!
Stayed tuned for 2 more tools I’ve used to help me manage post-traumatic stress. Until then, I’d love to hear from you.
What is your favorite way to get moving? Dance, yoga, or something else? Have you tried this tool? Does it work for you?
And, please feel free to ask me any questions about this post’s content.
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Watch the Video (coming soon)
Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.
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