Why the simple act of gardening can boost your mental health

“Just putting your hands in the dirt can help one to feel grounded, which many of us do not feel when we are anxious and overwhelmed,” one expert tells Yahoo Life (Credit: Getty)
“Just putting your hands in the dirt can help one to feel grounded, which many of us do not feel when we are anxious and overwhelmed,” one expert tells Yahoo Life (Credit: Getty)

It’s no secret that mental health has taken a hit lately. Stress levels are through the roof, more people are struggling with sleep issues and many are feeling just plain bored. While there are different ways to boost mental health right now, experts say there’s one tool that’s often overlooked: gardening.

“Just putting your hands in the dirt can help one to feel grounded, which many of us do not feel when we are anxious and overwhelmed,” Dr. Jen Hartstein, Yahoo Life Mental Health Contributor and practicing psychologist in New York City, tells Yahoo Life.

“It’s a way to reconnect with the natural world and remind us that there’s something greater than ourselves all around us,” Rinad Beidas, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s a really nice opportunity to center yourself and be in the moment. That can be really protective for mental health.”

Sarah Santucci is a third-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania who has created an outdoor garden on the roof of her building. Santucci tells Yahoo Life that gardening has helped her mental health during the pandemic and that she looks forward to tending to her plants every day. “No matter how your day went, you can always take care of your plants or do a harvest,” she says. “I always feel better after that. It’s so relaxing.”

Plenty of research has linked gardening with better mental health outcomes. One small study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found that people who transplanted an indoor plant felt more comfortable and soothed afterward compared to when they did work on a computer. In general, the subjects’ blood pressure was also “significantly lower” after they gardened, the researchers wrote.

Another study found that people who gardened after going through a stressful task had a “significantly stronger” decrease in the stress hormone cortisol compared to those who read. The gardeners also were in a positive mood after they planted, while people in the reading group were not.

And a meta-analysis of 22 studies found that gardening had a wide range of mental health perks, like reducing depression and anxiety and increasing life satisfaction and quality of life. “A regular dose of gardening can improve public health,” the researchers concluded.

The perks of gardening are so good that the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends gardening for 30 to 45 minutes to prevent or help control high blood pressure. You can even get a little workout in, depending on how intensely you garden, health expert Dr. Jennifer Wider tells Yahoo Life. “It's considered to be a moderate-intensity exercise,” she says.

What’s behind all of this?

Gardening seems like a simple enough hobby, but experts say there are likely a few things at play when it comes to the mental health perks. “It helps us be mindful and present,” Hartstein says. “It provides a ‘project’ and something to focus on, which allows us to move out of our own emotional space and engage in something. By focusing on something else, our mood can improve.”

On a subconscious level, gardening can also help people see the bigger picture. “Nurturing a living thing that is part of our ecosystem puts perspective on your place in the world,” clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. “We are a part of a larger ecosystem and our plants remind us of that.”

Gardening is physical, and that can help too, Hartstein says. “Moving activates our endorphins, which improves our mood. That is certainly true of gardening,” she says.

Planting something and watching it grow can also help you feel like you actually did something, Craig A. Smith, an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, tells Yahoo Life. “Taking care to nurture [plants] as they grow and develop can give people a nice sense of accomplishment,” he says.

Gardening can also either act as a fun family activity or provide much-needed solo time during quarantine, Mayer says.

Dr. Erez Salik, a vascular and interventional radiologist at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut, who has been treating COVID-19 patients, tells Yahoo Life that he gardens on the weekends to try to decompress from the stress of his job. ”The sun and fresh air are nice and relaxing after a week in the sterile environment of the hospital, especially now that we spend all day behind a mask,” he says.

So, how can you get the perks of gardening for yourself?

You don’t need to launch your own greenhouse to get the mental health boost—even tending to a few plants helps. “Tending to a few plants can have just about as much benefit as tending to a very large garden,” Smith says. “Most of the potential benefits—getting you outside and in the fresh air, making direct contact with nature, getting a sense of accomplishment—are pretty much the same for a small garden as for a very large one.”

Hartstein agrees. “Being able to care for something, to see it grow, to accept that it might need something more or different, to see the green...all of these are positive elements of gardening,” she says. “Whether you have a little or a lot, it can be beneficial.”

If you have a balcony or rooftop access, you can convert a large storage container into a plant bed, Santucci says. And if outdoor access isn’t an option, tending to indoor plants can give you the same effect, just on a smaller scale, Beidas says.

If you have a black thumb, that’s OK, too—Beidas says you can still benefit from gardening. “There’s no prerequisite that one would need to be a master gardener to benefit from nature and engaging in plant care,” she says.

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