Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Your Garden: A Safe Place for Mind, Body and Spirit

In a recent phone survey on the effects of  Corona Virus on New Yorkers by Sienna College Research Institute, an interviewer reported an older woman saying that the only good thing about her day was “ venturing outside and seeing a single flower blooming.”

In this unthinkable time of the Corona Pandemic, one safe place is being in nature – in your garden. Whether it is tending a potted plant, planting vegetables or just sitting near the daffodils and watching birds – you are in a safe place for mind, body and spirit.

We have been gardening for a long time. The Orto Botanico di Padova is a botanical garden in Padua, in the northeastern part of Italy. Founded in 1545 by the Venetian Republic, it is the world’s oldest academic botanical garden that is still in its original location. Perhaps this proclivity to garden reflects our primal urge to commune with nature, a sense of awe at beauty beyond our capacity to create, an ability to feel peaceful instead of frightened or isolated.

“How deeply seated in the human heart is the liking for gardens and gardening.” — Alexander Smith

The Benefits of Gardening

A meta-analysis by Soga,Gaston and Yamora reveals  increasing evidence that gardening provides substantial human health benefits. Studies report a wide range of health outcomes, as reductions in depression, anxiety, and body mass index, to increases in life satisfaction, quality of life, and sense of community.

Gardening to Deal With Traumatic Events

When you consider some essential characteristics of gardening in counter-position to  the impact of traumatic events on our core self, it seems that gardening may serve as a unique source of ongoing regulation as well as restoration and healing. Consider…

From Vulnerable to Verdant

In face of traumatic events, be they the loss of a loved one to illness or the devastation from a pandemic, we feel a profound sense of powerlessness. We are robbed of a familiar self who knows how to problem solve, move, help, and protect those we love.

In the garden there is some relief from the sense of helplessness because there is less risk in daring to make something happen. We don’t go into the garden to reset a sense of purpose or power.  Rather, enjoying what is often a reprieve from fear or worrying, we find that plants and flowers are gentle company. They embrace us and allow us to engage without judgment. They even grow with partial plastic seed paks still attached! The garden resets the possibility that our touch can make something positive possible.

From Trauma Time to Nature’s Time

Traumatic events disrupt our continuity of time. At the moment we are in a pandemic with no end in sight. In a sense time has lost relevancy. What we all had planned individually and as groups won’t happen at the time it was planned. The future is beyond our access but we are all striving to do our best to take one day at a time-sometimes the best we can do is one hour at the time.

In the garden nature keeps its own time. A crocus blooms in a pile of broken tree limbs after the storm, the daffodils have showed up on time this Spring even when things seem askew with the world. A young woman tells me that the wild blue flowers that appear in her garden each summer remind her of her mother and invite the feeling of being near her. Whether conscious or not, gardening helps us cope with traumatic times.

From Negative Sensations To Nature’s Sensations

Given that we respond to traumatic events with the human survival responses of fight, flight and numbing, trauma experts like Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine suggest that we suffer because we cannot “ shake off” the body’s readiness for danger, or the traumatic memories carried in flashbacks, tactile sensations or sensory reactivity to reminders of the event.

In the garden, the physical exertion of gardening allows the body an opportunity to re-direct hyperarousal, to experience movement, heavy breathing, even perspiration for good reason. The stimulation of the senses by the fragrances, visual beauty and physical touch inherent in gardening are powerful antidotes to the negative sensations that re-terrify and fuel avoidance of life after trauma.

To be startled over and over again by the fragrance of roses, the hint of honeysuckle or the beauty of a dogwood tree is to re-claim one’s senses.

From Lost to Found in Nature

Trauma expert, Robert Stolorow tells us that basic to the experience of psychological trauma is a “dreadful sense of estrangement and isolation” that compromises connection and recovery. Central to this sense of estrangement is the lost connection with self.

 In the garden, there is the opportunity to choose to lose oneself in the moment. Much as the runner finds in “ the zone” and those who meditate find in opening an inner space for self, getting lost in gardening equates to connection beyond consciousness, to fining a self that can feel peace and self-soothing again.

I like gardening — it’s a place where I find myself when I need to lose myself.–Alice Sebold

From Assaulted Belief to Nature’s Transformation

While spirituality serves as an important resource for many after trauma, others feel that what has happened calls into question their belief in God. For those who feel their belief has been assaulted, their pain is great as they are bereft of their usual source of hope and soothing at a time they need it most.

In the garden, no organized religion has ownership. What people feel from being steeped in nature is often described as a sense of “ awe” something transformative of heart and soul. Such transformation often re-kindles and redefines hope.

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” — Audrey Hepburn



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