The idea that being in nature can calm the mind is intuitive. For most of us, time spent in nature is a break from the norm, where the norm is electronic devices, indoor settings, and the stresses of daily life. To give weight to this intuition, researchers have sought to quantify gardening and nature’s benefits to our bodies and minds, and the findings have been wide ranging and sometimes surprising.
Gardening has been shown to provide stress relief in the short and long term. In one study of acute stress, subjects followed a stressful task with 30 minutes of either gardening or indoor reading. Afterwards, the gardeners’ level of the stress hormone cortisol had decreased significantly more than that of the readers, and self-reported mood positivity was completely restored to gardeners but had worsened in readers.
Other studies have found a similar effect from time spent in nature: greater stress relief derived from a walk in a woodland than a walk in an urban setting. And even in a highly urban setting small exposures to natural elements can lift peoples’ sense of well being.
Researchers have also sought to quantify the healing effects of natural space and gardening on people suffering from symptoms of illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Simple proximity to plants has been shown to improve tolerance for negative stimuli, and working in a shared garden space can increase feelings of purpose, camaraderie, and control among PTSD sufferers.
One particularly illustrative study showed the power of green outdoor space in controlling symptoms of ADHD in children. Using a rigorous study design, researchers showed that ADHD-type symptoms were alleviated more when children participated in activities in green outdoor spaces as compared to indoor or other spaces, regardless of the activity done there. The activities themselves were less important than the green space in which they took place. It’s a good argument that the goal for our outdoor spaces can be very basic: simply create a space with plants that makes you want to be outside. No lofty gardening goals required to derive benefits.
Another intriguing line of inquiry has suggested that contact with certain soil microbes may have the potential to lift people’s moods and alleviate symptoms of anxiety. Mood enhancement was discovered somewhat by accident in a study testing the effects of the soil microbe Mycobacterium vaccae on lung cancer. Anti-anxiety effects were observed in a study of mice (commonly an early-stage test species) injected with the same microbe. While these connections are not yet well developed, they hint at the complex ways our bodies and minds benefit from contact with nature.
For even more info about our health and nature you can visit https://www.asla.org/healthbenefitsofnature.aspx. You may also want to read books by Richard Louv who writes extensively about ‘nature deficiency disorder’.