How gardening can help people with PTSD
Avid gardeners will tell you that growing things from seeds or saplings, or simply keeping their lawns and borders looking healthy, brings a wonderful sense of satisfaction.
The joy to be found in creating something edible or beautiful is just one of the reasons why gardening is used as a therapeutic tool, including helping manage the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In a Japanese study, viewing plants altered EEG recordings and reduced stress, fear, anger and sadness, as well as reducing blood pressure, pulse rate and muscle tension. The charity MIND compared short walks through a garden with walks in a shopping complex, and showed that the former improved mental health, whereas the latter made it worse. Further studies have shown that views of plants and trees from post-operative wards improved the mood of patients, and reduced analgesic use, surgical complications and length of stay . All these studies (and more) show nature, and gardening can have a huge impact on your overall health.
Easy ways to grow
One of the advantages of gardening to support people with mental health challenges (or physical disabilities) is that it’s possible to carry out projects in a wide variety of settings.
It could take the form of working as a team, landscaping a large expanse of land or rescuing an overgrown area, for example.
Gardening as a solo endeavour can involve everything from cultivating an allotment, planting pots and hanging baskets for backyards, nurturing things in a greenhouse, or simply growing herbs on a kitchen windowsill.
Studies show that houseplant ownership has increased by 90% recently. So, even if you have a small flat you can get involved with horticulture.
There are also a growing number of community gardens in the UK, enabling people to grow their own fruit and veg as a joint initiative when they don’t have their own space.
Undemanding and relaxing
Combining repetition with a creative outcome is soothing, helping to relieve anxiety and stress. Much the same as crafting, you can ‘lose yourself’ in gentle movements when you’re gardening, and achieve mindfulness.
Working on outdoor gardens is affected by the seasons and weather, but most of the time you can do things at your own pace, whenever you want to. Though some people who use gardening for therapy enjoy having instructions and steps to follow, to complete tasks in an ordered and structured way.
You don’t have to grow edible items but can create something of beauty or that smells amazing. Or, plan out and build an outdoor area you would enjoy sitting in or visiting.
Safe experimentation is encouraged in gardening and you can add other creative pursuits. Such as laying pathways, building and painting decking or crafting outdoor art and planters from recycled items.
Connecting to nature
One of the ways gardening is a valuable therapeutic tool for PTSD, is that it enables participants to interact with the natural world. You breathe in the fresh air, get your hands deep into the soil, and observe the growing processes that’s been happening for millions of years.
‘Grounding’ yourself this way creates a safe space and a wonderful source of distraction from the demands of modern living.
Physical exercise and PTSD
Being outside and carrying out physical tasks can help release the hormones responsible for a positive mood. Plus, fresh air and exercise can tire you out, possibly helping to address the poor sleep patterns sometimes associated with PTSD.
Group activities or self-managing PTSD
We have already touched on some of the ways gardening can be used as a group activity. It creates both team building and social interaction, as well as opportunities to give and receive positive affirmation. One research study of the benefits of gardening to a group of veterans with PTSD showed “how a sense of purpose had been missing in their lives, and Gardening Leave had helped to give this back. This purpose was manifest in several ways; including a sense of pride, feeling motivated and ‘giving something back’ by helping to develop the garden”.
However, one of the best reasons to consider gardening to manage PTSD symptoms, is that you pick your project, get the tools you need, and get growing anywhere!
It’s important to note too, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance from 2005 and 2011 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
- AN EVALUATION OF THE GARDENING LEAVE PROJECT FOR EX-MILITARY PERSONNEL WITH PTSD AND OTHER COMBAT RELATED MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS, Jacqueline Atkinson, Professor of Mental Health Policy at Glasgow University
- Thompson R. (2018). Gardening for health: a regular dose of gardening. Clinical medicine (London, England), 18(3), 201–205. https://doi.org/10.7861/clinmedicine.18-3-201
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.