I am a therapist and I want to correct a misconception about therapy. There seems to be a broad assumption that our internal world and our external world are two separate things. When we’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or burnout, we often want to analyze ourselves, correct our thinking, or get medication to help the brain function seamlessly. We walk around like a brain on a stick believing that when our mood changes, or we feel something we don’t want to feel, our brain can figure out how to get out of it. We assume that a physical problem needs a physical solution and a mental problem needs a mental solution. It’s logic. But I want to suggest another healing agent: the natural world around us. Specifically, the garden right outside your front door.
Being outside makes you feel good. Hearing the layered songs of birds swooping down from trees, noticing the deposit of minerals in the rock formations of a canyon, reaching into the ground to mix in compost, bumping the surface to plant a seed. Is there anything more centered?
Human beings are the only living organisms that must “go out into the wild”. Most of us live in a tidy, air-conditioned space, and when we’re ready to engage in nature, we plan a trip to a park, go on a hike, ride a kayak, or plant a seed in the floor. But we are wrong. We are not visiting nature; we are nature. It’s so simple, but we forget. There is a strong connection between our outer world, our relationship to the natural world, and the chemistry of our brain and body.
I’m a licensed counselor in Dallas and have a deep interest in how our mental health affects our daily lives, but it’s also a personal interest for me as I struggled with depression for many years. One of my lowest points with depression was in the months after having my first baby. At the time, I didn’t know what postpartum depression was. One of my only reprieves from those dark days was when I planted a small vegetable patch. I would lay the baby down for a nap and go outside, spraying water on a small patch of dirt, watching the waterfall floating through the air. It was all I could do to water each day.
During this time, I knew that working with deep depression would be part of my goal as a counsellor. And throughout the process of school and internship, I developed a healthy interest (dare I say, complete obsession) with gardening. He has been my constant companion through good times and bad. After a while in my practice, I came across horticultural therapy. I was fascinated by the healing power of plants and nature.
As a consultant, I saw the importance of nature for our mental health. Many of us have been taking a daily walk, sitting outside or gardening during this pandemic. It was a safe space for us when going inside only created anxiety and posed a real health risk. It was a safe space away from the physical threat of COVID-19, but I believe it is also a safe space emotionally. It’s a soft space to land for people dealing with loss, stress relief, and it’s soothing to the nervous system.
So where can someone start? It’s easy to engage with nature passively. Like watching the sunset over White Rock Lake or walking down the street in your neighborhood. But I encourage you to be more active in nature. Get a pot and fill it with flowers or a tomato plant. Start a few seeds on your windowsill. The garden has so much to give us. Let your garden be part of your self-care process. Your garden can help you learn to regulate your feelings as you deal with the recent loss of a loved one. He can hold your hand through life’s tough days and help you grow as he grows.
Here are two practices you can do in your garden that can help you in your personal growth. For the purposes of this exercise, a garden space simply means: your garden, back porch, patio, yard, or balcony with a potted plant. It can be 12 square feet or half an acre. Remember we are not going to nature, we are nature. It’s all around us and it’s within us. Therefore, it is the most natural thing in the world to be present to your natural surroundings.
A practice for someone who is exhausted, stressed or anxious
Burnout and stress can be caused by a mismatch between your values and your gifts, and what is asked of you in your daily life. We often have to devote our attention to a task for which we are too tired or ill-equipped. An exhausted and stressed person longs for some restoration and mental rest. In nature, we can use “involuntary attention” to create a feeling of relaxation. Involuntary attention is what happens when you sit on your patio watching the birds or mindlessly weed your garden. You are just enough aware of the task at hand, while the rest of your mind takes a break.
Check with your body as you begin this practice in nature. What are you carrying with you right now? Where do you feel it in your body? Try not to over-analyze yourself, or fix yourself too much, and try not to mentally problem-solve. Breathe and imagine breathing into those tense places in your body. After the nature activity, repeat this exercise. See what has changed and check again with your body.
Scour your outdoor space for leaves, flowers, sticks, and petals. Whatever material you see. See if you can get a piece of plant material for each item on your to-do list. Or choose one to represent each burden you carry today. As you expose them, think about how you can release your worries and open your grip on your life. Once you are done with the design layout. Take a moment and then blow them all out as a symbol of letting go of your stress.
A practice for someone who is depressed or grieving
Depression is a complete lack of hope for the future. There is a felt sense of permanence when you are in the middle of it. I often notice that the more a person tries to cope by thinking more positively, it only highlights how helpless they feel to do anything. For these reasons, this reflection and activity focuses on acceptance and acknowledgment of depression.
Take a moment to acknowledge your depression. It may sound like discouragement, sadness, grief, or disappointment. What’s up today? Write this word. Let yourself feel it for a moment. Remember that emotions are not permanent, they come and go like the waves of the sea.
For this activity, you will need a seed or small plant, soil, a small pot or planting space, and a small piece of paper towel or toilet paper.
On the piece of paper towel or toilet paper, write one hope you have for yourself even though you are depressed. It can be something concrete: “I hope this plant grows.” Or a deeper desire: “I want my life back.”
Place your paper at the bottom of the pot or in a hole in the ground. Plant it with the plant or the seed. When you start growing something, you grow the seedlings, but you also have to trust that water and sunlight will grow it. In the same way, we set our intentions for our own growth and healing, but we must trust that healing happens in its time and that our body and mind will find a way.
Morgan Myers is a licensed therapist and owner of East Dallas Therapy. She wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.