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The benefits of spending time in the great outdoors are widely recognized. Several studies have examined the effects of nature on our mental health and well-being, proving time and time again that our feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress can be lifted just by going outside for a bit. Anecdotally, many of us understand the healing that nature can provide when we’re feeling overwhelmed, run-down, or frustrated about the state of the world. And for those with more substantial mental health issues, the advantages of digging in the dirt -- both literally and figuratively -- can be even more significant.

Since the 1800s, horticultural therapy has been used to help patients achieve therapeutic goals through their involvement in gardening and plant-related activities. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, this practice “helps improve memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills, and socialization… People learn to work independently, problem solve, and follow directions.” Gardening was actually incorporated into rehabilitation programs for hospitalized World War II veterans; since then, therapeutic gardening programs have continued to grow in popularity for both veterans and civilians.

There’s also something to be said for the rise in therapeutic gardens or healing gardens in mental health applications. The AHTA notes that these plant-rich environments are “purposefully designed to facilitate interaction with the healing elements of nature.” These gardens may include wide entrances and paths, raised flower beds, and plant selections chosen to stimulate the senses through fragrance, color, and texture. They’re meant to be attractive spaces that can accommodate those with a wide range of abilities.

VeteranAid.org also highlights the benefits of healing gardens for those with post-traumatic stress disorder, in particular. PTSD is the sixth highest rated disability among veterans, with a total of 800,000 veterans receiving compensation for PTSD symptoms at some level. VeteranAid explains that these healing gardens can offer harmony and reflection, the opportunity to move and exercise, a chance to socialize and share their stories, and a way to connect with nature (i.e., something bigger than one’s own trauma).

We know that gardening and food-growing can provide astounding advantages across many demographics. But for those struggling with mental health issues -- such as trauma or decreased cognitive abilities -- connecting with nature in this way can be truly restorative to the mind and spirit. Growing Health’s report on these benefits notes that gardening can reduce anxiety and stress, improve one’s sense of community, and increase alertness. NPR also adds that gardening decreases cortisol levels, meaning that the hormone that prompts our stress response depletes when we tend to our plants and flowers. Spending time outside in the sun can boost our serotonin levels, which can increase our overall sense of happiness.

Of course, trying out a new skill and accomplishing a goal can increase our personal satisfaction, too. Feeling connected to and being responsible for something alive and growing can do wonders for our minds. It can remind us to relax, let go, live in the present, and quiet our worries. Growing one’s own food not only allows us to feel a sense of accomplishment but also promotes healthy eating -- and as many of us know, a healthy body can promote a healthy mind. While the scientific studies pertaining to gardening and veterans with PTSD are somewhat limited, it’s no wonder that nature is often used to heal the traumatized minds of countless patients, from veterans to refugees.

Editor's Note: This informative and interesting guest post (not sponsored or paid by Self Sufficient Me) was written by the team at Hill & Ponton Disability Attornies (in Orlando).  

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