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Unfortunately, a slice of mindfulness doesn’t come in a Tim Tam packet, but lies in the green space of your yard. Fraternising with your plants is the first step to switching that busy mind off.
Life getting you down? Work/kids/relationships/Donald Trump got you reaching for another glass of wine or the emergency packet of Tim Tams? It happens to us all, but science and your rose-pruning grandmother have the answers, and it seems these answers are surprisingly close – in fact, no further than your kitchen windowsill, your can’t-swing-a-cat-sized balcony or any old patch of dirt and sunlight.
Thanks to some recent science, gardening (and more broadly, dabbling in anything related to green stuff,) has morphed from the preserve of suburban and rural dwellers, or environmental activists, to the realm of health therapy and wellness coaches. Horticultural therapy has been with us for a long time with dedicated professionals working with disabled people to support their physical, social and psychological wellbeing. However, the nascent “grow through green” industry is popping up in corporate office spaces, in programs to assist returned service personnel deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, even in helping treat depression in South Korea’s rising number of alcoholics.
So, how does this work? It seems our slowly evolving brain has yet to adapt to the artificial shapes, layout, light sources and materials of our urban spaces. Consequently as the density of urban spaces increases and we find ourselves spending more time in buildings, cars, buses and houses, our stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase. Conversely, contact with nature, outdoor spaces, plants and gardens has been shown to lead to a marked decrease in these physiological responses. It’s our old brain kicking in – the brain that enabled our forebears to explore, survive and flourish in a more natural world.
Taking a walk in the park will no doubt help with your cardiovascular fitness and will probably lower your stress levels somewhat; but for a sustained benefit, creating and nurturing your own little bit of garden has been proven to not only subdue those nasty health markers, but to foster a sense of delight, and ultimately, what psychologists like to call “flow” – a total absorption in what you are doing, when time stands still, and the activity captures your entire focus, and your performance tends to peak – all of which makes you feel pretty damn good!
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The trick here is in being involved; it’s the creative process itself that unlocks the feel-good hormones. Add to that the activity of maintaining your little patch of nature and, hopefully, the rewards of a flower that blooms or tomato bush that fruits (or at least, doesn’t die) and you have a neat little package of psychological self-treatment: the circular, reinforcing flow of activity and creation. If you have two black thumbs and have managed to kill a plastic Christmas tree, don’t despair. There are plants out there with a Bruce Willis gene.
Consider the humble succulents: they’re the recluses of the plant world (“Geez, will you just leave me alone!”). Stick them in a bit of gravelly old soil, water them when you remember to change your socks and leave them out in the sun to work on their tans. Despite what appears to be wilful neglect, they’ll reward you. Little baby succulents (“pups”) will sprout at the side of the mother plant and can be cheerfully ripped off and stuck in the ground somewhere else.
To get you going, check out this little Aussie video about potting up succulents. I tend to avoid any gardening/plant YouTube clips originating in the Northern Hemisphere because they just get everything upside down!
While we might blame the digital world for a lot of the stress we feel in life – that constant state of connectedness –the Internet is overgrown with great gardening blogs and YouTube clips and you’ll find a lot of genuine information (gardeners are generally a nice lot, they don’t do “fake news”). For example, just Google “balcony gardening in ” and a list of sites will bloom before your eyes.
If all this is not enough to get you fraternising with some plant life, scientists have dug up further evidence of the benefits of getting your hands dirty out in the garden. Residing happily in your average garden soil is a jovial little bacterium known as Mycobacterium vaccae which researchers found could trigger the release of the feel-good hormone serotonin. People who were exposed to M. vaccae while gardening, by inhaling the bacterium or having it enter the blood stream through the skin, demonstrated an elevation in mood, a decrease in anxiety, and most interestingly, an improvement in cognitive function.
So there you have it! A little happier, a little smarter, a whole lot better off for getting out among nature, potting up a few plants or maybe even a starting a little garden of your own.