Nurturing Resilience - The Role of Gardening in Trauma Recovery

March 13, 2024   •  Posted in: 

The power of nature and gardening as a therapeutic practice can be transformative for those who have experienced trauma.

This article will delve into the profound benefits of gardening, focusing on grounding, mindfulness, and nurturing life. It will also explore the science behind why it’s such a transformative practice for the human psyche.

Our connection to the natural world often takes a back seat in a world marked by fast-paced lives, digital distractions, and the constant buzz of modernity. Yet, within this connection to nature, we can find solace, healing, and an extraordinary source of strength.

The idea that engaging with nature can be therapeutic is not a new one. Still, its profound effects on individuals navigating through trauma are gaining recognition and scientific validation like never before.

Many individuals are discovering a unique and restorative path to recovery through gardening, in particular—a simple yet profound act of nurturing, growth, and connection.

Healing from trauma

Trauma, in its myriad forms, can leave an indelible mark on a person’s psyche, reshaping their perceptions of the world and self. Whether it stems from a single, life-altering event or accumulates through years of adversity, trauma is a heavy burden to bear.

Healing from trauma is a complex journey, one that often involves a combination of therapies, counseling, and self-care practices.

However, a natural remedy, often overlooked but profoundly effective, is waiting just outside our doors: the garden.

Nature and healing: What the research says

In 2021, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published an extensive examination of research spanning diverse fields, worldwide locations, and various demographic groups[1].

This in-depth analysis revealed many associations between the natural environment and human well-being. The results provide strong evidence that engagements with nature can:

  • Alleviate the adverse effects of stress.
  • Cultivate positive emotional bonds.
  • Show a connection with decreased levels of anxiety and depression.
  • Improve focus and attentiveness.
  • Evoke a favorable physiological response beyond what mere images of nature can induce.
  • Boost the immune system.

Likewise, studies[2] examining the influence of exposure to natural environments on cognitive abilities have unveiled positive links between the presence of green spaces near educational institutions and children’s cognitive growth.

The cognitive advantages stemming from nature appear to be distinct from mood alterations, as research indicates improved mood during summer strolls but consistent cognitive improvements regardless of mood fluctuations.

Ecotherapy, sometimes referred to as nature therapy or green therapy, is a developing field in mental health and overall well-being. It leverages the therapeutic potential of the natural world to enhance psychological, emotional, and physical health.

There is even a type of therapy known as horticultural therapy, referring to therapeutic practices in a garden environment.

The history of horticultural therapy

Horticultural therapy has a long history as an effective practice. The therapeutic benefits of garden environments have been recorded since ancient times.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent figure in American psychiatry and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence in the 19th century, was among the first to document the positive impact of gardening on individuals with mental illness.

In the 1940s and 1950s, horticultural therapy expanded significantly in the rehabilitative care of hospitalized war veterans. This growth went beyond treating mental illness, gaining credibility as a therapeutic approach for a broader range of diagnoses and treatments.

Today, horticultural therapy is widely accepted as an effective therapeutic modality in various rehabilitative, vocational, and community settings.

Horticultural therapy techniques help participants acquire new skills or recover those they may have lost. They can enhance memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills, and socialization.

Horticultural therapy can also contribute to muscle strengthening, improved coordination, balance, and endurance in terms of physical rehabilitation. In vocational horticultural therapy settings, individuals learn to work independently, problem-solve, and follow instructions.

Horticultural therapists are professionals who have received specific education, training, and credentials in using horticulture for therapy and rehabilitation.

According to The American Horticultural Therapy Association, a horticultural therapist is someone who:

  • Has a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in horticultural therapy or a bachelor’s degree with additional coursework in plant science, human science, and horticultural therapy.
  • Has completed a 480-hour internship in horticultural therapy.
  • Is professionally registered as a horticultural therapist with the American Horticultural Therapy Association as an HTR, Horticultural Therapist-Registered.

What aspects of therapeutic gardening can help heal trauma?

The therapeutic power of engaging with the earth, nurturing plants, and witnessing life’s cycle unfold is often underestimated. Gardening, a practice as old as civilization itself, has resurfaced as a powerful means of promoting psychological and emotional well-being.

Below are three aspects of therapeutic gardening, all of which are believed to be effective in healing trauma.

1 – Grounding: Connecting with the Earth

Grounding establishes a direct connection with the Earth’s natural energy through physical contact or proximity to the ground.

Often associated with activities like walking barefoot on grass, soil, and sand or immersing oneself in water, this practice is founded on the belief that such contact can yield therapeutic benefits for both physical and mental well-being.

The core principle of grounding is based on the idea that the Earth carries a subtle electric charge that can positively influence our health when absorbed through direct contact. This concept aligns with the notion that our bodies resonate with natural biological rhythms, facilitating the restoration of balance.

Supporters of grounding suggest it can benefit well-being in a range of ways. This includes enhanced sleep quality, reduced stress levels, improved immune function, better circulation, and decreased feelings of fatigue. By promoting relaxation and lowering cortisol levels, grounding is considered a means of counteracting the effects of chronic stress and the demands of modern life.

Participating in grounding often involves walking on grass, lying on the ground, or gardening without gloves, all of which encourage direct skin-to-earth contact. During these activities, mindfulness and a connection to the present moment are encouraged, prompting individuals to immerse themselves in the sensations of direct contact with the Earth.

One noteworthy aspect of grounding is its adaptability; it can be practiced in various natural settings. Whether in a park, at the beach, or in your backyard, grounding practices can be tailored to your surroundings.

However, it’s essential to approach grounding with an open mind, recognizing its effects can vary from person to person. If you want to incorporate grounding into your ecotherapy routine, consider starting with short sessions of direct skin-to-earth contact and paying close attention to your sensations during and after the experience.

While proponents tout the potential benefits of grounding, it’s crucial to acknowledge scientific research on its effects is still emerging and subject to debate within the medical community. Although specific studies indicate positive impacts on sleep and stress, further comprehensive research is needed.

Grounding epitomizes the holistic philosophy of ecotherapy by highlighting nature’s innate healing capabilities. By encouraging reconnection with the Earth and personally experiencing its effects, grounding can remind us of the profound interconnectedness between our well-being and the natural world.

Grounding, in the context of gardening, is not merely a physical act but a symbolic and deeply psychological one. When we dig in the garden or plant seeds, we’re not just cultivating plants but nurturing our emotional stability. The tactile sensation of earth in our fingers can be remarkably grounding. This connection to the earth promotes stability and security, helping individuals feel more rooted in the present moment.

Numerous studies[3] have shown physical contact with soil and the earth’s natural microbiome can enhance our mood. The microbes in the soil, particularly Mycobacterium vaccae, have been found to stimulate the release of serotonin[4], a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness and well-being.

However, it is important to remember that while grounding can complement conventional medical care, it should not replace professional medical advice or treatments.

2 – Mindfulness: A journey into the present

Mindfulness originates in age-old meditative practices and refers to a state of impartial awareness of the current moment. It requires purposefully concentrating on one’s thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and surroundings without any effort to alter or evade them.

For survivors of trauma, mindfulness can be therapeutically beneficial[5], offering a distinct and compassionate route to comprehending, embracing, and eventually merging traumatic encounters.

Gardening is an inherently mindful activity. Planting, weeding, and tending to plants require our full attention. When we immerse ourselves in the garden, the constant chatter of our minds quietens, and we are drawn into the present moment. This natural form of mindfulness reduces stress and promotes mental clarity and emotional well-being.

By focusing on the task, gardeners experience a sense of flow. As defined by positive psychology, flow is a state of deep absorption where one’s skills perfectly match the challenge at hand. Gardening provides a perfect environment for cultivating this state, as every action and reaction in the garden requires keen attention and adaptation.

Moreover, the garden is a space of sensory delight. The aroma of flowers, the texture of leaves, and the vibrant colors of blooms engage our senses and direct our awareness to the here and now. This sensory immersion aids in reducing anxiety and promoting a calm, meditative state of mind.

3 – Nurturing life: A source of fulfillment

The most emotionally rewarding aspect of gardening is nurturing life. From the moment a seed is planted, gardeners become caretakers, responsible for the growth and well-being of their green charges. Watching a tiny seed sprout and grow into a robust plant can be immensely fulfilling.

The sense of accomplishment accompanying the successful cultivation of a garden can boost self-esteem[6] and foster a sense of purpose. Gardening provides tangible evidence of the effort invested and a living testament to the potential for growth and renewal, a symbol that can be especially powerful for those dealing with emotional wounds or trauma.

Furthermore, tending a garden instills a deep sense of responsibility and commitment. The garden depends on us for sustenance and protection, much like our loved ones and ourselves. This sense of caregiving can be a profound lesson in empathy and compassion, extending beyond the garden into our daily lives.

Healing on your doorstep

Gardening, often regarded as a leisurely pastime, is a remarkable tool for enhancing psychological and emotional well-being. It offers a means of grounding, fostering mindfulness, and nurturing life.

Scientific findings support the therapeutic benefits; countless individuals have found solace, joy, and personal growth in their gardens.

So, whether you have a sprawling backyard or just a windowsill, consider delving into gardening. Cultivate a connection to the earth, embrace the present moment, and savor the profound satisfaction of nurturing life.

In the simple act of planting a seed, you may find beautiful blooms and a path to inner peace and emotional resilience. Gardening reminds us that, in nurturing the world around us, we nurture ourselves.

Trauma treatment and recovery at The Center • A Place of HOPE

The Center • A Place of HOPE is a renowned mental health treatment facility acknowledged for its excellence.

We adopt a holistic approach to treatment, encompassing every facet of an individual’s life:

  • Emotional health
  • Physical well-being
  • Spiritual harmony
  • Relationship satisfaction
  • Intellectual development
  • Nutritional vitality

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we provide care for conditions such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, PTSD, addiction, and OCD.

We collaborate with most major insurance providers and offer financial assistance options. To obtain further information, please reach out to us today at 888.771.5166.

1. Jimenez MP, DeVille NV, Elliott EG, Schiff JE, Wilt GE, Hart JE, James P. Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Apr 30;18(9):4790. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18094790. PMID: 33946197; PMCID: PMC8125471.
2. Dadvand, P., Nieuwenhuijsen, M.J., Esnaola, M., Forns, J., Basagaña, X., Alvarez-Pedrerol, M., Rivas, I., López-Vicente, M., De Castro Pascual, M., Su, J. and Jerrett, M., 2015. Green spaces and cognitive development in primary schoolchildren. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(26), pp.7937-7942.
3. Mau, A.F., 2012. The effect of participation in a community gardening program on mood of college students.
4. Hassell Jr, J.E., 2019. The Effects of Heat-Killed Soil-Derived Saprophytic Bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae on Stress Induced Fear Behavior and Serotonergic Systems (Doctoral dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder).
5. Follette, V., Palm, K.M. & Pearson, A.N. Mindfulness and trauma: implications for treatment. J Rat-Emo Cognitive-Behav Ther 24, 45–61 (2006).
6. Hoffman, A.J., Thompson, D. and Cruz, A., 2004. Gardening, self-efficacy and self-esteem. The Community College Enterprise, 10(1), p.91.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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