I am a psychotherapist and I want to correct a misconception about therapy. There seems to be a broad assumption that our inner world and our outer world are two separate things. When we struggle with depression, anxiety, or fatigue, we often want to analyze ourselves, fix our thinking, or get some medication to help the brain run smoothly. We wander like brains on a stick believing that when our mood changes, or we feel something we don’t want to feel, our brain can think of its way out. We assume that the physical problem needs a physical solution and the mental problem needs a mental solution. It is logical. But I want to suggest another healing factor: the natural world around us. More specifically, the garden right outside your door.
Being outdoors makes you feel comfortable. You hear the overlapping songs of birds swooping from the trees, you notice minerals settling in the valley’s rock formations, your hand sinking into the soil to mix in compost, and you press the surface to plant seed. Is there anything more centered?
Humans are the only living beings who should “be in nature”. Most of us live in a tidy, air-conditioned space, and when we’re ready to interact with nature, we plan a trip to a park, go for a walk, kayak, or plant a seed in the soil. But we have this error. We do not visit nature. We are nature. It’s very simple, but we forget. There is a strong connection between our external world, our relationship to the natural world, and our brain and body chemistry.
I am a licensed counselor in Dallas and have a deep interest in how our mental health affects our daily lives, but this is also a personal interest of mine as I have suffered from depression for many years. One of my lowest points with depression was in the months after the birth of my first child. At the time I didn’t know what postpartum depression was. One of my only reasons for holding back was from those dark days when I planted a small vegetable garden. I would lay the baby down for a nap and go outside, splashing water on a little plot of land, and staring at the waterfall floating in the air. All I could do was water every day.
During that time, I knew that working with deep depression would be part of my goal as a counselor. Throughout the school and internship process, I developed a healthy interest (dare I say, a complete obsession) in gardening. He has been my constant companion on good and bad days. After a while in my practice I stumbled upon horticultural therapy. I was fascinated by the healing power of plants and nature.
As a consultant, I have seen the importance of nature to our mental health. Many of us have taken daily walks, sitting outdoors, or gardening during this pandemic. It was a safe space for us when going home was just a worry and a real health risk. It was a safe place away from the physical threat of COVID-19, but I think it’s also an emotionally safe place. It is a soft landing space for people experiencing loss, decompression of stress, and it is also soothing to the nervous system.
So where does one begin? It is easy to treat nature in a negative way. Like enjoying the sunset over White Rock Lake, or walking down your neighborhood street. But I encourage you to be more active in nature. Get a vase and fill it with flowers or a tomato plant. Start with some seeds on the window sill. The park has a lot to give back to us. Make your garden space a part of your self-care process. Your garden can help you as you learn to regulate your emotions, as you deal with the recent loss of a loved one. It can hold your hand during life’s tough days and help you grow as it grows.
Here are two practices you can do in your garden space that may help you in your personal growth. For the purposes of this exercise, garden space means only: your backyard, back porch, patio, patio, or porch with a potted plant. It can measure 12 square feet or half an acre. Remember we don’t go to nature, we are nature. It is all around us and it is in us. Therefore, it is only natural to be present in your natural surroundings.
Exercising for someone who is tired, stressed or anxious
Exhaustion and stress can occur due to a mismatch of your values and gifts, and what is required of you in your daily life. We often have to devote our attention to a task that we are too tired or equipped to handle. A person who is feeling overwhelmed and stressed craves some recovery and mental rest. In nature, we can use “involuntary attention” to create a sense of relaxation. Involuntary attention is what happens when you sit in your yard watching birds or weeding your garden. Only you are aware enough of the task at hand, while the rest of your mind rests.
Check your body when you begin this practice in nature. What do you carry with you at this moment? Where do you feel it in your body? Try not to analyze yourself, or focus too much, and try not to solve any mental problems. Take a breath and imagine you are breathing in those tense places on your body. After a nature activity, return to this exercise. Look at what has changed and check your body again.
Walk around your outdoor space looking for leaves, flowers, sticks, and petals. Whatever material you see. See if you can get one piece of plant material for each item on your to-do list. Or choose one to represent each burden you carry today. As you view it, think about how you can let go of your fears and open up your grip on control over your life. After completing the design. Take a moment, then blow them all as a token to de-stress.
Exercise for a depressed or sad person
Depression is a complete lack of hope for the future. There is a sense of permanence when you are in the middle of it. I often notice that whenever a person tries to take themselves out of it by thinking more positively, it only highlights how powerless they feel to do anything about it. For these reasons, this thinking and activity focuses on accepting and recognizing depression.
Take a moment to acknowledge your depression. You may feel frustrated, sad, sad, or disappointed. How do you feel today? Write that word. Allow yourself to feel it for a moment. Remember that emotions are not permanent, they come and go like sea waves.
For this activity, you will need a small seed or plant, soil, a small pot or planting space, and a small piece of paper towel or toilet paper.
On a piece of tissue paper or toilet paper, write one hope you have about yourself even as you struggle with depression. This can be something tangible: “I hope this plant grows.” Or a deeper longing: “I want my life.”
Place the paper in the bottom of the pot or in a hole in the ground. Transplant it with a plant or seed. When you start growing something, you are planting seedlings, but you also have to trust that water and sunlight will make it grow. In the same way, we set our intentions for our growth and healing, but we have to trust that healing happens in its own time, and that our body and mind will find a way for it.
Morgan Myers is a licensed and owner of East Dallas Therapy. I wrote this for the Dallas Morning News.