Mental wellbeing ebbs and flows, and in the same way a person can experience a bout of physical ill-health, anyone can experience a bout of mental ill-health. Anxiety, depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder(SAD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are just some of the illnesses that will affect at least 1 in 4 of us at some stage in our lives.
Physical exercise is one way we can increase the amount of serotonin in our bodies. Serotonin is a hormone that helps control mood; low levels of serotonin contributes to low mood and higher stress levels. Even anti-depressants aimed at targeting serotonin can only prevent your body from reabsorbing serotonin, they don’t increase the levels produced. Growing involves exercise-from mild to moderate to heavy physical work are all involved in maintaining a veg patch. Even basic growing activities like digging, weeding and watering require movement, effort and energy.
One of the hallmarks of common mental illnesses like depression is what medics call ‘rumination’. This is a cycle of negative thoughts that are seemingly impossible to break. A person mired in that cycle can’t ‘snap out of it’. Engaging wholly in a meaningful activity can help to interrupt that cycle in the immediate term, but can also have a cumulative effect, which breaks the cycle of negativity long-term. By meaningful, we mean ‘with a purpose’. Watching TV, surfing the web or eating are not activities that produce anything, there is no purpose to them. Growing creates something. There is an end-product that will nourish us, or our family and that has purpose.
Learning New Things
There’s lots of research to support the link between learning and happiness. Picking up a new skill or piece of knowledge contributes to fulfilment and satisfaction. There are limitless opportunities to learn while growing, and the knowledge accumulated pays off in a tangible result which can help create a great sense of wellbeing.
Mindfulness is one of those words that has started to lose meaning through overuse. At its simplest level mindfulness is just being in the present. Mindfulness combats aspects of mental distress like worry, constantly catastrophising about the future, or regret, dwelling in the past to a harmful degree. Gardening takes you out of your head and into your hands where you can focus on the current task completely.
This might seem contradictory to mindfulness but bear with us. Growing is all about hope. You plant a seed and you give it what it needs and then you hope that there will be a good outcome in the future. The analogy of surviving the winter in the hope that spring will come is often used in mental health treatment. Growing is a physical representation of exactly that process.
The act of doing something for someone else is very powerful. It promotes so many of the emotions that lead to improved mental health. Seeing someone happy because of something that you have done, reminds us that we do have the power and the ability to improve a situation, to affect positivity. Whether it’s a bag of apples or a bunch of herbs, having something to give is the antithesis of the common feeling of emptiness that poor mental health can cause. It creates an outward focus that distracts from the self-consciousness and self-destructiveness of depression and anxiety.
While growing can be a very solitary activity it doesn’t have to be done wholly in isolation. There is a strong community aspect to being part of a group that understands and shares experiences and knowledge. Whether it’s a community garden, an allotment, chatting over the fence to a neighbour, swapping veg or joining a GIY group, there are multiple access points to a wider community of growers. Combatting isolation and making connections is a huge part of tackling mental health issues.
There is nothing like the feeling of digging up your own spuds, eating your first homegrown tomatoes or cooking with your own herbs. The creation of a physical thing from your own work, that you can then use to nourish yourself, is a great boost to self-esteem that can’t be underestimated.
Fresh Air And Sunlight
In our modern sedentary, indoor lives we are often divorced from nature. As a species we evolved in nature, and spent 99% of our existence as hunter gatherers and farmers. This new way of living does not suit the way our brains and bodies evolved to function. There is strong evidence to suggest that spending time in nature, feeling the soil, absorbing some sunlight and being exposed to the elements promotes not just physical health, but emotional wellbeing. Growing food satisfies a primal urge we all have; to nourish ourselves and to have contact with, and some control over our environment.
Contact With Soil
There are physical benefits to working with soil. Microbes that exist in the soil number in the millions and we ingest them through inhalation or through our skin when we work close to the soil. One such microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae is shown to boost levels of serotonin in our bodies. Serotonin plays a very important part in our mood-low levels cause low mood, depression and anxiety. Higher levels promote happiness, wellbeing and contentment. Just spending time outdoors in nature can boost our mental and physical wellbeing.