Gardening and Mental Health: Can Gardening Improve Your Happiness?

Updated: Aug 27



Christie Urreola from Peace.Love.Gardening

Many of us have been faced with this simple question before, but it often seems jarring at the time. What makes you happy? Although it seems like such an easy question, it proves difficult for many people to answer.


For the past 10 years, I have been living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I know, it's a mouthful and trust me, it's a brain-ful as well. Living with any mental illness is taxing for the individual, both on their mind and soul. It is so difficult to find an activity that you enjoy or to live life to the fullest. You eventually hit a roadblock that reads, "DO NOT ENTER." And of course you stay. That's the end of the road. Never knowing what's on the other side.


However, there are those who find a way to tear down that road block, those who take steps towards making their happiness a priority. It takes immense strength and love from family and friends, but most importantly love for themselves. Loving yourself with mental illness can be difficult. You tell yourself that you deserve the pain, that this is the hand you’ve been dealt. Choosing to love yourself can be a miraculous thing, and I found love for myself through gardening.


Why gardening? It gave me my life back and for the most part, my mind. Gardening is what feeds my soul and gives me the answer to that dreaded simple question. It's what makes me happy and hopefully it can make you happy too! Here are 3 ways that gardening can improve your happiness like it did mine.


TIP # 1: IT’S IN THE SOIL!

Have you ever noticed the moment your hands touch the soil your mood lifts? This isn't by chance, it's soil science. Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium found in soil has been linked to the increase of serotonin in your brain. We know that serotonin is in some part responsible if not all responsible for our happiness.


Laboratory testing performed on mice at Sage Colleges by Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks found that exposure to this bacterium led to decreased anxiety and a higher ability to focus. They stated that the mice who ate the bacterium “navigated the maze twice as fast and exhibited half of the anxiety behaviors” compared to those that did not.


These findings can be related to human exposure as well. Mathews states that “gardeners inhale these bacteria while digging in the soil, but they also encounter M. vaccae in their vegetables or when soil enters a cut in their skin. From our study we can say that it is definitely good to be outdoors–it’s good to have contact with these organisms. It is interesting to speculate that creating learning environments in schools that include time in the outdoors where

M. vaccae is present may decrease anxiety and improve the ability to learn new tasks.” With these findings, we can see how getting your hands in the soil makes us be happy.

TIP #2: EXERCISE & THE GARDEN!

Exercise is good for your health and happiness! Now if you're like me, I know what you're thinking, “do I have to workout today?” As we teeter in our minds and try to convince ourselves it's good for us, time slips and we give in to doing something else. The great news is, if gardening was your “something else” you did choose to exercise!


It is well known that exercise is a leading component to happiness. According to researchers at The University of Vermont, the positive mood benefits of 20 minutes of exercise can last “up to 12 hours”. Exercise increases our endorphins while reducing levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Exercise has also been a proven remedy for both depression and anxiety. Lowering cortisol in the body improves the immune system independent of the mental effects exercise produces.


Now, does gardening really count as exercise? The answer is yes! Gardening has been linked to the improvement of dexterity and strength as well as muscle mass, endurance, and functional movement. Gardening incorporates all types of exercise. The four types of exercise are: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Gary L. Altman, Associate Director of the Horticultural Therapy Program at Rutgers states, “gardening should be thought of as a whole-body exercise that works all of the major muscle groups including legs, buttocks, back, abdomen, neck, arms, and shoulders.” Thanks for the support, Gary!


TIP #3. WHAT'S ON OUR PLATE?

I think my favourite part of gardening is the food that we harvest. From the moment we see sprouts, to the plants producing fruits and vegetables, and finally on to our tables. We all find so much joy in the process, but there are other reasons why happiness is connected to harvest. The greatest benefit of growing our own food is eating our own food. Not only does eating fruits and vegetables benefit your physical well being, it benefits your psychological health as well.


In a recent study of nearly 1,000 subjects, the participants were asked to eat foods rich in antioxidants, fruits and vegetables, while scientists monitored their mood. The study showed those who ate three or more servings of fruits and veggies reported greater optimism than those who ate less. A study with similar methodology found that “greater fruit and vegetable consumption was positively associated with reduced depression, less psychological distress, fewer mood and anxiety problems, and improved perceived mental health.” Eating the fruits of our labor is bringing a new meaning to ‘eating our way to happiness.’


So getting out in the garden is good for us after all. Getting our hands dirty, getting some exercise and eating our own food can bring a little happiness our way. And one day, if you notice your children watching you in the garden, invite them in and share the beauty of gardening so they may too pass it on.



A Message from the Author - Christie L. Urreola


"All the words that have ever been written are out there; it's just how you arrange them that matters. " - Christie L. Urreola



Follow Christie @peace.love.gardening

Hello fellow gardeners!


Thank you for reading my blog and allowing me to introduce myself to you all as a new friend in your gardening community. I’m pretty sure I have no clue what I’m doing, but I’m loving every moment along the way.


My name is Christie L. Urreola. I am 30 years old, I live in San Diego, and I've been married for two years now. I am a professional wedding photographer and I own a small studio with my husband. As of 20 days ago, I can also say that I am a gardener!

I have always been interested in plants and the idea of having a small farm in the future. I would give just about anything to have a chicken. Seriously, one of my last presentations in college was why I should have a chicken. Years later, I’m still on my crusade to owning at least one, and hopefully many more.


I took up gardening somewhat by mistake, but it roped me in before I knew it. Once my first sprout had popped, I screamed at the top of my lungs! My poor dear husband thought his wish came true and I was finally being snatched away...just kidding, he loves me but I did get way too excited!


How did this passion come to be? I have been struggling with mental illness for nearly 10 years. In that process, I was forced to adapt my personality to the illness. I had begun to lose who I was, my personality, my voice. For the past 8 months I’ve been on a crusade to find myself. It was slow going at first, but I was starting to see a glimpse of me. Then COVID-19 hit. It didn’t affect me much at first, I was already used to living in fear. However, I found myself with lots of time on my hands. I couldn't shoot weddings anymore and I had caught up on all of my editing. Then my mom bought me a habanero plant.


The plant has sentimental value to me. It was my father's favourite pepper and he grew them throughout my childhood. My mom thought it would have a positive effect on me, and she was right, as mothers tend to be. It started me on my path to gardening. I went to the store, I loaded up on all sorts of goodies and I got to work. Getting my hands in the soil was a spiritual experience, like a reunion with something I didn’t know I left.


My husband took notice and said I should share photos of my plant growth progress with friends. I had a better idea, Instagram. I started my page on May 15th this year and in two weeks I rounded up 1,100 followers. This is where this blog comes into play. Le from Nurture Growth Bio-Fertilizer took notice of my spunk and bubbly personality (believe it or not, anxiety can never take that away). She asked me to be myself and write a blog and I did. So, here I am just an overly excited beginner gardener on her own personal crusade to owning chickens and finding the road to peace, self love, and a long life of gardening.


Citations

Anne Cissel, 2011, It’s in the dirt! Bacteria in soil may make us happier, smarter. 01/06/2020, {https://blog.nwf.org/2011/03/its-in- the-dirt-bacteria-in-soil-may-make-us-happier-smarter/}


Science World, 2018, How does gardening make you happier? 01/06/2020 {https://www.scienceworld.ca/stories/how-does- gardening-make-you-happier/}


Kristen Hickey, 2019, "Gardening should be thought of as a whole-body exercise that works all of the major muscle groups including legs, buttocks, back, abdomen, neck, arms, and shoulders," 01/06/2020 {https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-18323/9-reasons- gardening-is-the-ultimate-mindbody-workout.html}


Tom Scheve, 2009, Is there a link between exercise and happiness?" 01/06/2020, {<https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/exercise- happiness.htm> }


Blue Zones, Good Mood Foods: How Diet Affects Happiness, 01/06/2020, {https://www.bluezones.com/2018/01/moods-and-foods/}


Mayo Clinic, 2019, Antioxidants: Why are they important?, 01/06/2020, {https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition- and-healthy-eating/multimedia/antioxidants/sls-20076428}


Frances Bridges, 2019, Healthy Food Makes You Happy: Research Shows A Healthy Diet Improves Your Mental Health, 01/06/2020{ https://www.forbes.com/sites/francesbridges/2019/01/26/food-makes-you-happy-a-healthy-diet-improves-mental- health/#551134bf26f8}




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