Insight Mind Body Talk: The Nature Prescription – Gardening for Mental Health with Ariyanna Toth

Mind Body Talk is a body-based mental health podcast. Whether you’ve tried everything to feel better and something is still missing or you’ve already discovered the wisdom of the body. This podcast will encourage and support you in healing old wounds, strengthening relationships, and developing your inner potential- all by accessing the mind body connection. 

Welcome to Insight Mind Body Talk, a body-based mental health podcast.  

Today’s episode is titled The Nature Prescription: Gardening for Mental Health.  

My guest is Ariyanna Toth. As a registered yoga instructor, Ariyanna has a passion for mental health and wellness. She is a Clinical Intern at Insight Counseling and Wellness, and believes in an integrated approach to mental health, focusing on connection, movement and mindfulness. She has her Master’s in Education with a focus on Applied Behavior Analysis and has previously worked as a behavior analyst with children with ADHD, dyslexia, autism, and learning disabilities. As a psychotherapist, she hopes to combine her knowledge of behavioral change with mindfulness and nature, creating an experience for others to connect to their best self.  

As an avid plant person and through her love of adventure in the outdoors, she realized the significant impact of gardening and nature on her own well-being. Inspired by her own lived experience, she now incorporates nature into mental health treatment. Ariyanna is passionate about bringing the body and nature into therapy. You can see why she is the perfect guest to discuss the great outdoors and how outdoor activities, specifically gardening, can lead to therapeutic transformation. 

Welcome Ariyanna. A lot of listeners don’t know this yet, but Insight is expanding to a couple of different branches. We have a new building coming this Spring and a new satellite branch in Verona, Wisconsin, and both locations are going to have gardens. Ariyanna, you’re going to be in charge of those, connecting some of our consumers to gardening in real time. 

I am passionate about gardening and the fact that I could possibly do it for work is a dream.  

In today’s world of technology, many people are choosing to turn off their screens and get back to nature. Where do you think this shift is coming from? Why is being outdoors so important to our psyche?  

We are coming to the end of a Wisconsin Winter, most of us have been hibernating so there’s a push to get outside, but there’s a bigger picture.  

During the pandemic we went to a place of a lot of screen time. Most of us are spending most of our workday or school day online and then afterwards, more screen time. We are both the most connected human beings on the planet to the entire world through the internet, but also the least connected. A lot of people are feeling lonely and disconnected, and that’s a new thing for humans. If you think back how connected we are to nature, we now spend most of our days inside. This was a really important topic pre pandemic, but also right now.  

Nature just changes our system. For example, being outdoors is the number one thing people can do to experience a shift, but even looking out of a window has benefits and even looking at a picture of nature has some benefits, or listening to the sound of a babbling brook can shift our nervous system and our chemicals and our brainwaves.  

Today, we live in concrete jungles and the pandemic has pushed a lot of us inside which can shift our mental health emotionally and cognitively, but also how our genes are expressed or how the chemicals or hormones shift in our bodies and what that does to our mental health. 

Our brains are hardwired to pay attention to those types of nature senses. Whether you’re standing in a garden or in the middle of the forest are our senses, our five senses are lit up by the sounds and the sights and the smells. Our bodies are hardwired to pay attention to that. We just don’t get that time in our society.  

What types of outdoor activities does research show shift our mental health and wellbeing? 

Over the last decade, there’s a whole umbrella of nature therapy, ecotherapy, horticultural, which is that gardening piece, wilderness therapy, adventure therapy, and they all boil down to getting outside, connection of some sort, whether that’s to yourself, to others, to something bigger than yourself, and moving your body in a mindful way.  

That’s probably why those nature retreats are so sought after and why we feel so different even from going for a walk around our block, let alone getting to go to a retreat or do forest bathing. 

There’s a tick-tock trend that says, I’m going on a stupid mental health walk for my stupid mental health and the idea is that, yes, it actually works. Getting outside and moving your body, even if we don’t want to admit that it works, it does. We’ve got to get outside, to feel the sunshine on our faces to hear the birds and look at the trees. It does shift our mental state. We just need five or 10 minutes to experience those feel good hormones.  

Let’s shift into gardening.  

The research is saying that there are obvious benefits.  For example, sunshine. There is a lot of research that shows the effects of vitamin D deficiency on mental health. A lot of prescribers of medications will look at that first before giving an antidepressant, because there’s such a big association between the two. When gardening, you’re going to be outside and in sunshine.  

If you’re not sure where your levels are at, get tested. Doctors don’t generally test for vitamin D, so ask for a blood test on vitamin D levels. You could be surprised.  

Even when we’re supplementing vitamin D, it takes being outside to make the chemical reaction happen. Taking a supplement and staying indoors isn’t going to make the bio availability of the vitamin D strong. You really want to be outdoors and get that sun on your face, even for a short while. It’s really important.  

Another thing is gardening is a physical activity. You’re walking, you’re digging, you’re bending over, you’re lifting, at times it can be aerobic exercise. Spending your Saturday out in the garden moving your body is an obvious benefit.  

Also, when you’re gardening, you know where your food comes from. My friends who have gardens love knowing that they grew that food and where it came from and what pesticides or chemicals were, or were not, used. When you go to the grocery store you don’t have control of what went into your food.  It also just tastes a lot better when you put so much work into it. If you can get to a point where you’re harvesting your food, that’s an obvious benefit as well. 

What are some of the benefits that the average person might not be considering?  

There’s a lot of research out there on grounding. With jet lag, getting your feet on the earth can help with your circadian rhythms. In gardening, putting your hands in the dirt and grounding that way can help with your nervous system and regulate yourself. It can help with a bigger sense of connection.  

Getting your hands in the dirt is a quick and easy way to drop yourself back into connection with your body. When I think back on planting something or even potting, big smiles happen during the process. It is hard to be mad when you’re doing that. 

When I’m mad I do the best weeding, I’ll go to my yard and put some of that polyvagal, hyper arousal, or fight response into the energy of the bending and pushing and pulling. It’s hard not to feel that nervous system shift.  

In the garden, I don’t use gloves. I have my hands in the dirt to connect to some of the really good bacteria that’s related to our gut microbiome. 

The Harvard School of Health explains our microbiome like a bustling city on a weekday morning, the sidewalks flooded with people all trying to get to their appointments. I like to imagine New York city at a microscopic level. That’s what our microbiome looks like inside of our bodies. It consists of trillions of microorganisms, thousands of different species, not only bacteria, but fungi, parasites, and viruses. The largest number of them can be found in our small and our large intestines, but also throughout our body. In a healthy person these microorganisms coexist peacefully.  

They are now starting to label it as a supporting organ because it plays so many key roles in promoting the smooth daily operations of our body. There is this bi-directional, so two-way, communication between our nervous system and the microorganisms in our gut. There’s this gut-brain central communication happening and any imbalance in our gut flora or any inflammation of the gut has been linked to more severe mental illnesses, including anxiety or depression. Because again, that microbia plays a really important role in the interactions between our gut and our system. Brain chemistry, our endocrine system, our hormone system, our stress responses, memory, anxiety, can all be affected by changes in our microbiome.  

That’s pretty amazing because it means we can also change it back with things like putting our hands in soil, moving our bodies, eating foods that support the microbiome. As a body worker, there are so many times that I see how nutrition and movement and our gut health truly impact our mental wellbeing.  

Our gut bacteria produce a lot of neurotransmitters, those neurons that give signals back and forth in our brain and help create dopamine, norepinephrine, really important chemicals or hormones that are critical for managing our mood, concentration, motivation, decreasing anxiety. The act of putting our hands in the soil starts to shift that change. That’s phenomenal. 

Another major benefit of gardening is that there are a lot of life lessons to be learned.  

Acceptance of what you can and can’t control. We spent a long time creating an ideal garden in our backyard, including a trellis to hold our cucumbers. A huge windstorm came and knocked over the trellis, which fell on our zucchini plants that were thriving. It was an opportunity to figure out how we’re going to respond. I can say gardening is not for me, I give up, this was a waste of time. Or, I can salvage what I can and figure out how to prevent that from happening during the next storm? That’s a skill that is really important for everyone, children and adults. The lesson of understanding what we can control and what we can’t control and how we respond to what happens in life.  

Patience. It’s not like you plant a seed and have a tomato plant you can harvest the next day. In this world, we get a lot, and we get it fast. We live in a world of short-term reinforcement. Food is fast. The internet is fast. If we have a question, we can get it answered.  

We’ve lost the stability to do difficult things and put in effort if the reinforcement isn’t immediate. Can I put in the effort and work, knowing that I’m not going to reap the benefits until later, and that’s not even a guarantee. It’s a risk. I don’t want to be hurt or disappointed. At the same time, what an amazing outcome if it does work. I think all of us would probably be helped by having a big dose of things in our life that slow us down and keep us present in the moment. Being able to find connection and a little bit of stillness. 

I have ADHD and I think both neuro-typical and neurodivergent can benefit from gardening. As a hobby or a skill, gardening takes a lot of preparation and planning and problem solving and learning from your mistakes. It’s a long-term activity. I think it’s important for all of us, especially children and adults with ADHD, where executive functioning, planning ahead and sticking with it can be challenging.  

I connected to different gardening Facebook groups, and it’s nice to have a community of like-minded people. Someone posted, after six weeks, $140 in supplies and daily watering, we are only three or four weeks away from enjoying one single 25 cent vegetable from our garden. It’s the idea of putting all of this work in and getting a very great tasting tomato out of it.  

Overall, gardening helps with emotional regulation skills or help us expand our window of tolerating difficulty and things that are uncomfortable for us.  

Last year I had some of your zucchini or cucumbers, they were delicious. That came from the storm damage. We had to harvest all the zucchini and cucumber so I gave it away to as many people as I could. Another benefit from this thing that could have ruined our garden was that sense of connection. I was able to give all of this stuff away. 

Tell me more about the idea of hunters and gatherers. How does this connect back to our history as people?  

There’s a hunter farmer theory, especially related to ADHD. Way back when, there were hunters and there were farmers. If you think about the skills and strengths of a hunter, you have a big burst of energy when you’re out hunting you have hyper-focus, you’re in the moment, and then you rest. A farmer, on the other hand, is day in, day out routine. Daily watering and managing and problem solving for the long-term rewards.  

They found that people who are neurodivergent or closer to the ADHD side of the spectrum, tend to be more of the hunter type. For myself, gardening is teaching me some of the farmer type skills that have been very difficult. 

It’s a really cool concept because it takes away the stigma of, there being something wrong with you, or this is a disorder. No, your brain just works in this way and we can also build skills that counteract that as well.  

When we play or do something we enjoy; we make neuropathways so much faster. So, if you’re someone who is interested in working on executive functioning skills or working on slowing down, enjoying the lesson will allow it to stick a lot faster. Gardening might be a wonderful way of making those neuropathways stronger. 

Especially with children who are learning those skills of, wow, I didn’t plan ahead and now my tomato plant is falling over. You’re starting to learn through natural consequences, why it’s important to plan ahead and what works and what doesn’t. 

It can be so therapeutic, by challenging somebody but also experiencing the increase in confidence or self-value when we’re able to work through the difficulty.  

When someone asks, how can I raise my self-esteem or increase my self-worth, one of my go-to strategies is to take on the hard stuff. We often avoid the hard stuff so that we feel okay, but taking on the harder, unpredictable, or challenging, is where we gain belief in ourselves.  

Gardening can really lend a hand to that. It’s those small daily moments that we can change our perspective on ourselves and how we navigate the world. And, this has visual, tangible progress. Being able to see the plant growing and hold something in your hand, makes it easier to connect to success. 

I think that’s why, in some ways, people appreciate somatic or body modalities. When we lift, we get stronger. When we do yoga, we feel more regulated. When we do art therapy, we have a picture. When we garden, we have food. Those things are so tangible. 

How does one begin to have a garden outdoors or perhaps even inside as an alternative?  

The idea of a garden can be overwhelming, especially if you’re an all or nothing kind of person. In my mind, if I’m in a garden, I’m going to have five acres of land and live completely off the land and homestead. It doesn’t have to be that way.  

If you have a backyard, great, start with a small garden or some potted plants. If a balcony, there are a lot of things you can do in container gardening, where you just have a pot. If you have a really sunny window, you can do these things indoors. Even just having a couple of herbs for your kitchen. 

There are also a lot of community gardens. You sign up for a spot, don’t have to do the work of setting your garden up, but you get this space to be able to grow your plants. It’s a really nice way to connect to other people who are also in the garden, getting community as well.  

There’s so much to learn that you can do, but I recommend starting small. Maybe try out one or two plants or types of plants, especially ones that you know you’ll eat. 

What are some hardy plants to try before doing something that’s more temperamental? 

It really is just about looking up whatever you choose. Most people over water, especially indoor plants. My go-to is once a week in the summer, or once every other week in the winter. Start small. Having one plant to understand how much sunlight and water it needs will allow you to pick it up quickly.  

It also comes down to acceptance of the life cycle. A lot of times people think, I can’t keep plants alive, so this is just not for me. I throw away plants all the time. It’s okay to have a basil plant where you reap the rewards and sometimes it dies and sometimes you’re able to keep it alive. It’s important to not shame ourselves because something didn’t have perfect success. Some things only have one season and that’s okay. 

The social piece of gardening is huge for mental and physical health and wellbeing. This isn’t an activity that is meant to be alone. Plant people are the nicest people on the planet. Go to a garden store and ask questions. There’s also a ton of different Facebook pages where people post pictures of their gardens or ask questions. People are so willing to help. Finding a friend or a family member or community that will support you along the way is a good place to start. 

Thank you so much for brining nature to us.  

It’s hard to find an activity that gives you that many benefits on that many realms and we all need a bit of challenge and sometimes heartbreak and sometimes success.  

This really isn’t about gardening, it’s about reconnecting with who we are as human beings. If that means just getting outside, or eating the zucchini that I grew, there’s benefits to all of us. 

Thank you.