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5 Reasons Gardening Can Help to Heal Trauma

We need a path to the garden.

Whether gardening means potting two plants, planting vegetables in a sunlight space, planning a garden of hope with others, or clearing the debris around some emerging crocus, gardening offers healing.

While gardening has always been considered a valued pastime, there is increasing evidence of the physical and mental health benefits. The results of a 2016 meta-analysis of research examining the effects of gardening found a range of positive impacts from increases in an individual's life satisfaction, vigor, and psychological well-being, to reductions in stress, anger, fatigue, and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Why Gardening Is Healing in the Aftermath of Trauma

When you consider some essential characteristics of gardening in counter-position to trauma’s impact on the core self, it seems that gardening may be a unique source of restoration and healing. Consider these reasons:

1. From Vulnerable to Verdant

In face of a traumatic events, be it illness, the loss of a loved one, violent assault, or devastation from the pandemic, we feel a profound sense of helplessness. We are robbed of a familiar self who knows how to problem solve, move, help, and protect those we love.

In the garden, there is some relief from the sense of helplessness because there is less risk in daring to make something happen.

We don’t go into the garden to reset a sense of purpose or power. Rather, enjoying what is often a reprieve from self-blame, despair, or tears, we find that plants and flowers are gentle companions. They embrace us and allow us to engage without judgment. They even grow with partial plastic seed packs still attached. The garden resets the possibility that our touch can make something positive bloom again.

"Where flowers bloom so does hope.” —Lady Bird Johnson

Hands holding and caring for a green young plant
Source: anenic181/IstockPhotos

2. From Trauma Time to Nature’s Time

Traumatic events disrupt our continuity of time. The pandemic stole precious time from everyone and decimated predictable routines. First responders had no time. Isolated seniors felt trapped in what seemed to them endless time or borrowed time. We all struggled to operationalize the mantra of "one day at a time."

In the garden, nature keeps its own time. A crocus blooms in a pile of broken tree limbs after the storm, the daffodils show up on time—even when things seem askew with the world. A young woman tells me that the wild blue flowers that show up in her garden each summer remind her of her mother and the close feeling of being near her. Whether conscious or not, gardening starts to loosen the way trauma locks us into painful times.

"To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” —Audrey Hepburn

3. From Negative Sensations to Nature’s Sensations

Given that we respond to traumatic events with the human survival responses of fight, flight, and freeze, trauma experts like Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine suggest that we suffer because we cannot “shake off” the body’s readiness for danger, or the traumatic memories carried in flashbacks, tactile sensations, or sensory reactivity to reminders of the event.

The physical exertion of gardening allows the body an opportunity to redirect hyperarousal, to experience movement, heavy breathing, and even perspiration for good reason. The stimulation of the senses by the fragrances, visual beauty, and physical touch inherent in gardening are powerful antidotes to the negative sensations that re-terrify and fuel avoidance of life after trauma.

"I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” John Burroughs

4. From Lost to Found in Nature

Trauma expert Robert Stolorow tells us that basic to the experience of psychological trauma is a “dreadful sense of estrangement and isolation” that compromises connection and recovery. Central to this sense of estrangement is a lost connection with self.

In the garden, there is the opportunity to find and restore self, by losing oneself in the moment. Instead of feeling isolated or alone one is in a "flow state" also known as being "in the zone." It is the mental state in which a person is fully immersed in an activity with positive energized focus. Much as the runner finds himself on a new road or the artist loses time in the world of her creation, getting lost in gardening equates to a connection beyond consciousness, the chance to experience a self beyond pain and loss.

"I like gardening. It's a place I find myself when I need to lose myself." Alice Sebold

5. From Assaulted Belief to Nature’s Transformation

While spirituality serves as an important resource for many after trauma, others feel that what has happened calls into question their belief in God. Some, who feel their belief has been assaulted, are bereft of their usual source of hope and soothing at a time of need.

In the garden no organized religion has ownership. What people feel from being steeped in nature is often described as transformative of heart and soul. For some, such transformation feels sacred. Whether it transforms or inspires, being with nature often rekindles or redefines belief.

“A garden is a delight to the eye and a solace for the soul.” —Sadi