Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Gardening therapy

Yesterday's WSJ (paid subscription required) ran this article, "The Leafy Green Road to Good Mental Health: New Science Points to Benefits of Weeding, Watering Gardens" by Michael Waldholz.
Common sense and experience tell us that hiking in the wild or working in a garden can be emotionally restorative. Now, scientists are beginning to understand why: Gardening -- or simply observing a lush landscape -- holds a powerful ability to promote measurable improvements in mental and even physical health. . . .

One study published in June found that people who were exposed to nature recovered from stress more quickly than others who weren't; what's more, the positive effects took hold within just a few minutes. Dr. Ulrich's research has showed that hospitalized patients whose windows looked out at landscape scenery recovered from surgery more quickly than those without such access. Other studies have found that simply viewing a garden or another natural vista can quickly reduce blood pressure and pulse rate and can even increase brain activity that controls mood-lifting feelings.

A growing body of evidence suggests that humans are hard-wired not just to enjoy a pleasant view of nature, but to actually exploit it, much like a drug, to relax and refresh after a stressful experience. Our earliest ancestors, Dr. Ulrich theorizes, likely needed a way to swiftly recover from a traumatic experience such as a hunt, a battle or an attack from a wild animal. "You can imagine that those who could look out at the open savannah, seeing its safety and tranquility, and quickly feel calm but also alert to their environment would likely have a survival benefit over others," Dr. Ulrich says. . . .

"The gardens of the ancient Egyptian nobility, the walled gardens of Persian settlements in Mesopotamia, and the gardens of merchants in medieval Chinese cities indicate that early urban peoples went to considerable lengths to maintain contact with nature," according to Texas A&M's Dr. Ulrich. More recently, Harvard zoologist Edward O. Wilson has written extensively on this natural affinity, which he calls "biophilia" and defines as a partly genetic tendency by humans to respond positively to nature.

The latest research and writings are serving as the intellectual basis for the relatively new practice of horticultural therapy. Practitioners say their experience shows that gardening can have an especially beneficial mental-health impact because it provides a sense of control, a psychological counter to stress and anxiety. This is especially important for patients who are recovering from stroke or other traumas or are learning to live with a physical or mental disability, says Teresia Hazen, who oversees horticulture-therapy programs for Legacy Health System in Portland, Ore.
Once again, the old ways, bolstered by new science of course, are being taken seriously.

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