Sue Stuart-Smith

How gardening is good for us: Sue Stuart-Smith on gardening and our mental health

Psychiatrist and psychotherapist Sue Stuart-Smith explains how connecting with nature and gardens will help stress and trauma

Sue Stuart-Smith is a prominent psychiatrist and psychotherapist who, together with her husband the garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith, created the Barn Garden in Hertfordshire. Her new book, The Well Gardened Mind, looks at the effects of nature and gardening on our health and well being, though real-life stories. Here she explains how nature can help us while we follow coronavirus isolating guidelines and what prompted her to write the book in the first place. Read our review of The Well Gardened Mind in April’s Gardens Illustrated magazine.

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How can gardening and nature help the mind?
The therapeutic power of gardening derives from the many levels on which it influences us both consciously and unconsciously.

Proximity to green nature has been shown to alleviate anxiety, improve mood and revitalise cognitive functioning, as well as reducing blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Research shows that taking exercise outdoors is more beneficial than exercising in the gym. In addition, gardening involves contact with the soil which provides exposure to ‘friendly’ bacteria that can enhance the immune system.

Many people report experiencing an almost instinctive urge to sow seeds

Research indicates that one in particular, Mycobacterium vaccae, may play a role in raising levels of the mood boosting neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.

Other psychological and emotional aspects of gardening’s effects on us are equally important. For example, working with the cycle of life can be helpful following the experiences of trauma and/or loss. The feeling of achievement that arises through working with nature’s creativity is empowering and leads to an increased sense of self-esteem.

Gardening can be a mindful activity that brings us into the present moment but it is also orientated towards the future in a positive way. Both of these can be helpful in counteracting depression and anxiety. Fundamentally, gardening is a hopeful act.

What advice would you give to people spending time at home in isolation, but who have a garden or a growing area?
Make the most of whatever outdoor space you have access to. I find that gardening forces me to slow down and I love feeling part of something much larger than myself. I particularly like the physical aspect of it. The earthiness is a great antidote to spending time looking at a screen which most of us are doing more than ever at the moment.

At times of crisis, nature’s powers of regeneration are deeply sustaining to us

Many people report experiencing an almost instinctive urge to sow seeds and tend to plants in response to the current crisis. This phenomenon has been observed following many different forms of natural disaster and in the aftermath of wars. It’s been called ‘urgent biophilia’ to reflect the pressing need we can experience to reconnect with a love of nature when we are exposed to extreme situations. Gardening brings us into direct contact with the mystery of how life is generated and sustained. We can easily become detached from these fundamental realities but at times of crisis, nature’s powers of regeneration are deeply sustaining to us.

Are there things people can do if they don’t have a garden?
Bring green nature inside. Grow herbs on the windowsill, introduce flowers or potted plants into the house and listen to recordings of birdsong or other sounds of nature. If possible exercise outdoors everyday near trees and greenery and spend some time in mindful appreciation of the natural world around you. It’s important to find a calm space inside yourself. Nature can help us do that because plants and trees are unperturbed by what we are going through.

It’s important to find a calm space inside yourself

What prompted you to write The Well Gardened Mind?
My own experiences of being helped through gardening played a part, as well as my family history. During the First World War, my grandfather was captured and taken prisoner of war. Having endured years of captivity in Turkey, he spent 12 months on a horticultural rehabilitation scheme in 1920 and this was a turning point in his recovery. Following this, he developed a lifelong passion for gardening. His experience made a deep impression on me and was undoubtedly one of the inspirations for writing the book. But I was also driven by a belief that forming a relationship with plants and developing an attachment to place through gardening can help counteract many of the mental health issues that are on the rise today.

In the course of researching the book I became even more inspired by the subject. I interviewed people from mental health gardening projects – prisoners, veterans and at-risk youth, as well as people suffering from depression, anxiety and addiction – hearing their testimonies was a deeply affirmative experience.

How would you describe the book?
The book weaves together a number of different ingredients that are drawn from literature, anthropology, psychology and neuroscience. It includes stories of people whose lives have been transformed through horticulture as well as my own experiences of being helped through gardening. I also draw on psychoanalytic thinkers such as Jung, Freud and Winnicott, each of whom in different ways understood the importance of our relationship with nature. Freud had a particular love of flowers and his garden was enormously important to him when he was dying.

Four things to do at this time to connect with nature

1

Make the most of whatever outdoor space you have access to

The earthiness is a great antidote to spending time looking at a screen which most of us are doing more than ever at the moment.

2

Bring green nature inside

Grow herbs on the windowsill, introduce flowers or potted plants into the house and listen to recordings of birdsong or other sounds of nature.

3

Exercise in nature

If possible, exercise outdoors everyday near trees and greenery and spend some time in mindful appreciation of the natural world around you.

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4

It’s important to find a calm space inside yourself

Nature can help us do that because plants and trees are unperturbed by what we are going through.

Listen to Sue with her husband designer Tom Stuart-Smith at this year’s NGS Annual Lecture in November

The Well Gardened Mind
The Well Gardened Mind is published by Harper Collins and is out 16 April 2020.