Anxiety and the Garden

Words by
Lucy Munro
Images by
Daniel Shipp
| April 19, 2017

Anxiety. It’s a weed that roots itself deep within, feeding on hope and happiness, accompanied by its friends: self-doubt and fear. We all have our own little anxiety root-ball within us, waiting for the optimal time to sprout, paralysing us with uncertainty and worry.

Plant people, however, are the custodians of a special, ancient knowledge: that gardening has the power to help heal these uncertainties. And although we can probably never finitely squash the invasive weed of anxiety, the act of gardening can help us to create a mental landscape more at peace with it.

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The physical advantages of gardening are seemingly obvious – toned bodies from the exertion of hurling heavy tools; lower risk of lifestyle diseases as our heart rates soar and our lungs become breathless; strong bones from Vitamin D exposure. The real mystique lies in the cognitive benefits of gardening – the excitement we feel as seeds first sprout, the mental disentangling of worries, grief and fears as we wrench weeds from the soil, the inner stillness and clarity after a day feeling the earth beneath our feet.

Gardeners have been scientifically recorded with increased levels of feel-good hormones and decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Mycobacterium vaccae, a friendly-bacteria found in the soil, is absorbed through the skin and results in the brain naturally producing higher amounts of serotonin and dopamine. This is one account for the happiness high we feel after a day spent digging. However, as many plant enthusiasts will try to explain to you, gardening goes deeper than this.

Where is the official document recording the almost religious state of contemplation we can access while deadheading the roses?

Since ancient times, plants and gardening have held spiritual significance to people. The culture of Aboriginal Australians is deeply intertwined with the spirit of the Land, their mother. New Kingdom ancient Egyptians adorned their houses and tombs with flowers, plants and trees to connect with their Gods. Sixth century Japanese Zen gardens were places of contemplation and reflection with their carefully arranged stones, water, raked sand and architecturally pruned maples: a spiritual escape from the distractions of daily life.

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Fast forward into the 21st century and these distractions have increased astronomically. Our lives today are fast paced, expensive, stressful and well documented through social media – the perfect environment for anxiety to silently spread its tendrils. So much so that anxiety is now the most common mental health condition in Australia, distressing over two million people per year (Beyondblue.org.au, 2017). Many of us have lost touch with the ability to be mindful and contemplative, to exist solely in the present moment and recognise that our fears, worries and emotions do not define us and will eventually pass if we allow them to.

At some stage in our lives we’ll all come face to face with the shoots of anxiety – granted, some will germinate more extensively than others.

Having some gardening tools on hand to thin out the worries when they sprout is a good idea.

Whether it’s taking 5-10 deep breaths in your garden space daily, the kind where your tummy puffs out on the inhale; or being conscious in the moment – tracing the veins of leaves with your fingertips, feeling the earth beneath your bare feet, listening to the sounds of your breath in your ears as your secateurs pierce through the overgrowth of a hedge, smelling the roses, smelling the lavender, smelling the cedars; or simply marvelling at the wonder of being able to garden – to partake in an activity that parallels the rhythmic cycles of life. In no time, you’ll become one of those plant people who possess the ancient knowledge, your anxiety root-ball trimmed with the seasons and a sharp pair of secateurs.

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