Getting Down and Dirty (gardening and anxiety)

Perhaps the mindfulness portion of my creativity challenge is stretching on a bit longer than I had originally planned. We should be diving into the ‘bored to brilliant’ portion shortly, but I think there is still some ground here that we need to till before we move along- after all, these two topics are flip sides of the same coin. Once we have one managed, the other will slip easily into place.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have struggled with anxiety for just about my entire life. And I don’t mean the kind you get right before you have to make a big presentation. I mean the kind that grows and duplicates until it starts to impact my daily functions. Phone calls can turn into a Herculean feat requiring a pep talk, a little bit of rehearsing, and (hopefully) a reward after a job well done. I can keep myself up half the night when I know I will be driving somewhere new in the morning, convinced that I will somehow get myself irreversibly lost, even with GPS. I have to map things out, I need to know step by step what to expect; this is why I always appear overly prepared and why I ask a lot of very detailed questions- my brain demands the answers that will allow me to visualize the game plan.

Over the past year my anxiety skyrocketed (hmm, couldn’t even begin to sort out why), and I found myself struggling even more. Sleepless nights, sick to my stomach, migraines, exhaustion and insomnia existing side by side. I struggled, to say the least. Once you start rolling down that hill it is very difficult to slow the momentum and climb your way back up.

And this, my dear adventurers, is why I find myself enamored by this particular phase of the creativity challenge. Finding that sliver of peace I had craved for so long became more then a goal, it was damn near an obsession. I’ve tried most of the tricks people suggest: meditation, yoga, deep breathing, sensory tricks. And while all of these options carry their own benefits, it didn’t get to the core of my personal issue. Sure, they could help me calm down once I’d already started amping up- but was there anything that could get me out of my own head long enough to slow my downward spiral right in it’s tracks?

And that’s where I landed on this challenge: attempting to discovery new ways to curb my anxiety and de-stress my brain, ones that I hadn’t attempted before. Truthfully, I didn’t expect to find much. After all, I had spent years meandering down this particular path of self-discovery, it just didn’t seem likely that I would find a magical little unicorn answer to solve my wayward woes. Dang, was I wrong.

Growing up I always had a deep love of nature and anything plant-related, though my thumbs are far from green. The first house I ever lived at was a pretty large plot of land next to my grandparent’s cattle farm. We had a little garden that my mom took care of, and we spent our days climbing the fruit trees scattered across our yard: apple, cherry, pear, and a few walnut trees- it was heaven. We moved when I was still in elementary school, traded in those fruit trees for wild country woods. It was the kind of place where a bear could stroll into your garage on accident and you could follow the paths the deer made through the underbrush. Perhaps this is why I’ve always felt most at home in nature.

I guess gardening wasn’t a big leap to make after that, though this is the first year I decided to really jump in. Sure, I’ve cared for my share of desk and house plants; I’ve got my main four that have moved between offices and houses with me for years: Bonnie, Clyde, Fifel and Travolta have been faithful companions even when I didn’t deserve them. But outside of these beauties, I haven’t had much space in nature to call my own. This year was the first one where I had a tiny patch of land to call my own, and while it is pretty tiny, its still mine and I get to decide how to play in it.

I honestly had no idea how relaxing a garden would be until I started planting. There was something deeply soothing about the entire process. I have a really bad habit of getting caught up in my own head, lost in my thoughts that lead me down rabbit holes best left alone. So the act of putting my hands in the dirt and caring for something else was liberating: the physical outlet pulled me out of my cartwheeling thoughts and grounded me in the present moment.

Gardening and the Brain Game

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who felt a breath of fresh air invigorate my soul as I dug my hands into the dirt. In UK study involving 317 people who took part in table-top gardening sessions 80% self-reported better mental health resulting from the work, while 93% said that they had improved confidence and motivation. When asking gardeners why they partook of that particular activity, the second most common answer was for mental health (the top response was for recreation). The benefits have been seen so broadly that there are now horticulture therapy programs where you garden for the specific benefit of your own mental health.

Many of these therapy programs have relied on studies that indicate that the activity can reduce depression, anxiety and stress-related symptoms, alleviate symptoms of dementia, increase the ability to concentrate and engage, and reduce reliance on medication and self-harming behaviors. While it may sound a bit strange at first, there is science to back it all up. Studies have shown that gardening is linked to mental clarity, as well as the promotion of problem solving, learning, and sensory awareness. The variety of brain functions you have to employ while working with your leafy compatriots acts as an exercise routine for your brain itself, keeping it healthy and strong.

Accepting the Imperfect

Those who have been gardening long term have also noted that it allows you to practice acceptance: often what you expect and what you get when gardening can be two very different things. You can do everything right, and sometimes those carrots still won’t grow. This is an easier and safer way to dip your toes into acceptance and, to a degree, grief at the idea of missed expectations. It also forced you to move past perfectionism: while mother nature is beautiful, she is far from perfect.

Growing a Mindset (and a few cucumbers)

If you’ve ever read a self-help book, you have probably heard the term ‘growth mindset.’ When you are living with a fixed mindset you are resistant to change. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one in which you are always learning. Failures are not viewed as defeats; they are lessons that you can pick up and use later on for improvement. Those who partake in tricky hobbies like gardening have an easier time developing a growth mindset because, let’s be honest, there is always something to learn and improve on. Most early gardeners initially indicate that they feel a degree of stress when they run into failures because they don’t feel like they’re doing things right: but this feeling is very quickly followed by a bit of research, connecting with others, and developing a new play going forward. Suddenly the failure isn’t the end of an entire hobby, it is merely a little speed bump on the road towards delicious asparagus.

Creating Community (and cauliflower)

I always envisioned gardening as a solitary endeavor: you sit there outside with your little watering can and your beds and get to work. And while that can sometimes be the way the cookie crumbles, there is actually a large and thriving community centered around this all-consuming hobby. Even as a novice I have been welcomed with open arms by anyone and everyone I know who dabbles in the craft. A two minute conversation during a break at work had led to tips on cultivating tomatoes, an offer of free raspberry bushes, the best type of cucumbers to grow, how to make hops good enough to use in your own home brews. And that’s just after a week enmeshed in this little world.

The community you are able to build around something you collectively love is perhaps one of the strongest connections you can make. There is something about that spark of passion that inspires kinship, even amongst vastly different individuals. This type of interpersonal connection is crucial for building up a strong mental health base. Having a support system you can fall back on and talk to greatly reduces stress levels, giving you the room to vent when you feel like a tea pot ready to scream from the pressure.

Aligning with Nature

Not only does gardening connect you to other people, but it gives you a direct vein straight into our natural world. There is something deeply humbling about feeling that vibrant connect to other living things and viewing yourself as an integral member of this crazy world of ours. And not just a member of it, but someone who is actively doing your part to make it a little better, healthier and greener. This will easily help boost confidence and motivation all on it’s own. Two key ingredients for optimal mental health.

Having meaningful work to focus on provides us with a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. It increases optimism, resiliency, hope, joy, happiness, and satisfaction. Finding meaning in your life is considered to be vitally important to your health. If you’ve even known of a person who retires and has their health immediately begin to decline: one of the reasons often discussed stems from this lack of purpose. Your mind and body crave a meaningful life- and meaning can be derived from anything. You don’t have to be the President of the United States to have a purpose; sometimes it can be as simple of being the person who waters the plants that you love. They depend on you to live; in my book, that will always be vitally important work.

Getting Fit by the Pumpkins

Plus: it’s a physical activity, which means it’s good for your body too. And when you look at this from a stress-reduction standpoint: physical activity is one way that you can complete your stress cycle. The act of moving calmly and methodically through the daily steps involved can convince your brain that the danger has passed and it’s okay to move on. Not to mention: if you are growing delicious and healthy things, you are more likely to consume delicious and healthy things.

Physical activity all on its own changes your brain chemistry. It releases endorphins, norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine (the body’s natural stress-reliever), while increasing blood flow to the brain (providing it with more oxygen and nutrients). Not only that, but it actually decreases levels of negative chemicals in your brain, while forcing your physiological systems (these are all involved in the typical stress response) to communicate and work more closely together; once again, completing that pesky stress cycle.

A Mental Outlet Amongst the Plants

But for me, the biggest selling point wasn’t necessarily in the act of planting itself: sure, that did do a lot to ground me. But yoga was also capable of grounding me in my body. So what was different about this activity that the five hundred others I’ve tried over and over again the past few years? It’s simple: gardening was able to give my brain an outlet to focus on even when I wasn’t actually outside with my plants.

You see, I tend to ruminate. That’s one of the things that makes my particular flavor of anxiety so difficult for me to manage. I can get manage myself in a stressful moment, but my brain will flip back to that unlucky event over and over again once it’s passed. I will play it on repeat like a toddler watching Scooby Doo (or whatever toddlers are obsessed with these days). Gardening, however, required a lot of creative planning, plotting, and research on my part. I’ve been checking out library books, watching videos, looking up articles; all in an effort to learn more to make me a better plant mama to my new little charges. Not only that, but every single plant has slightly different needs: this means that the research is never really over. Once I figure out how tomatoes tick, I can move on to broccolini or pear trees.

I’ve also had to get creative to solve my space-problem. My yard is quite small and the little bit that I do have is somewhat landscaped in a way that I really enjoy to look at. So the trick became: how to maintain a garden when I am limited on space? This was a big hurdle requiring a lot of creative energy to problem solve. This required more focus, a tad more research, and connecting with others to get their input and opinions about the things they have tried. My current answer: container and vertical gardening. Which requires an entirely different skill set than in-ground traditional gardening. So guess who found even more fodder to focus her mental energy on?

My brain has been so busy sorting and learning about my new project that I have simply forgotten to think about my usual stressors. I don’t have time. I can’t sacrifice the bandwidth it requires to ruminate and relive uncomfortable moments- not when I have tomatoes that desperately need to sprout and water schedules to sort out. And the best part? It really didn’t take much effort at all on my part to mentally switch gears. The transition has been fluid, and that alone is insanely exciting to someone like me who has spent years trying to figure out how to turn off that anxious piece of my brain when it wouldn’t give me a moment’s peace. It’s been game-changing. And while I know the novelty might eventually wear off, right now: it’s the best trick I’ve tried, and I’m not going to lie, I am feeling pretty good.

So ultimately, for me- my garden gave me the gift of mindfulness in the sense that it carried my mind away from it’s most painful moments and gave it a directed focus on a hobby that makes me feel good for even attempting. So there you have it, my friends- finding peace in the places that you least expect. I told you: the creativity portion of the challenge is brewing just below the surface: we are dipping our toes into these waters without even realizing. What other brilliant clues to our own happiness do have hidden just below the surface of our own consciousness?

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Author: katiebell318

I'm a 28 year old unknown writer who spends her day job working in the courts (rest assured- that place is stranger than any fiction I could write). I love reading, writing, random crafts, baking and hiking. I have a fiance and two fur babies (one kitten and one German Sheppard puppy) who make up my little family. learning to step out of my comfort zone and start checking things off my dusty old bucket list.

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