Many gardeners already know the uplifting feeling you get from being muddied of hand, nurturing plants from seed to bloom and watching the seasons change. It is something the NHS is increasingly taking notice of, too, as a way to improve and manage mental health, along with other conditions.
A GP surgery – Cornbrook medical practice in Hulme, Manchester – has started prescribing gardening to people with anxiety and depression. Patients are given plants to care for, which are later planted in the surgery’s communal garden – a place where they can join in an activity with others and strengthen social connections.
There are other similar schemes, such as Sydenham Garden in south London, which takes GP referrals for its therapeutic sessions. “Research shows that outdoor exercise or ‘ecotherapy’, such as gardening or walking, has huge benefits for wellbeing and can even be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety,” says Aimee Gee from the mental health charity Mind. “This is thought to be due to a combination of doing more physical activity, which is known to have many physical and mental health benefits; getting more regular social contact with people, which can reduce loneliness and boost self-esteem; and being surrounded by nature, which can boost your overall mood and sense of wellbeing.”
The colours, sounds and smells of a garden, she says, “boost our wellbeing, while nurturing a garden or allotment provides the satisfaction of completing tasks and a stronger connection with the natural environment, both of which are associated with improved self-esteem and decreased levels of anger”.
Monty Don, the gardener and TV presenter, has credited gardening with helping with the depression he has experienced. In a column for Gardeners’ World earlier this year, he summed up the optimism gardening instils: “When you plant something, you invest in a beautiful future amid a stressful, chaotic and, at times, downright appalling world.”
Even if that doesn’t convince you of the magic of gardening, there is a strong possibility that other forms of non-clinical “social prescribing” might be on their way to your surgery soon; other alternative treatments include arts and crafts, walking and singing lessons.
To welcome something doesn’t mean we have to like it, and it doesn’t mean we have to agree with it; it just means we have to be willing to meet it. We temporarily suspend our rush to judgment and are simply open to what’s occurring.
With welcoming comes the ability to work with what is present and what is unpleasant. After a while, we begin to discover that our happiness isn’t determined simply by what is external in our life but also what is internal. To be open means to embrace paradox and contradiction; it’s about keeping our minds and hearts available to new information, letting ourselves be informed by life. Openness welcomes the good times and the bad times as equally valid experiences. Openness is the basis of a skillful response to life.
Openness welcomes the good times and the bad times as equally valid experiences. Openness is the basis of a skillful response to life.
At the deepest level, this is an invitation to fearless receptivity. To welcome everything and push away nothing can’t be done as an act of will. This is an act of love.
Six Steps to Open Up to the Present Moment
Mostly, we think of mindfulness as bringing a very precise attention to what’s happening, as it’s happening. In this way, we bring an almost laser-like attention to our practice. We bring a careful moment-to-moment attention to sensation, to thoughts, to emotions. But sometimes this kind of precise attention can create a sort of tension or struggle in the mind.
This is when it’s more useful to try a practice that cultivates an open, boundless awareness. To develop a mind that is vast like space. To allow pleasant and unpleasant experiences to appear and disappear without struggle, resistance, or harm.
So, let’s try this practice for welcoming everything and pushing away nothing.
- Settle back into your seat, relax, and come into the breath and body. Maybe let your eyes close if that feels comfortable for you. Let your breathing be very natural.
- Begin by being aware of the various sensations in your body: pressure, movement, tingling, the feel of the air on your hands and face. Just feel the waves of sensation.
- Now, let go of the idea of arms and legs and a body. Become aware of the area above your head. How far does that space extend? Let your awareness sense what’s to the left of you. What’s to the right of you? Let your awareness come into the area below your body. Is there any vibration in your feet or the floor? Let your awareness extend to the area behind your body, so it fills the whole room. Let your awareness be aware of what’s in front of the body, extending out as far as it possibly can, so that there’s this sense of openness, of boundless space; and all of the activities of body, heart, and mind are appearing and disappearing in that open, welcoming space.
- Allow all experience to arise without any interference—no inside, no outside. Relax your ownership of thoughts. Look and see the difference between being lost in thought and being mindful of thought. It’s like when a sound occurs in the room, or a bird flies by, you just notice the sound of the bird; you don’t think it’s you. Let it be that way with your thoughts and sensations, everything coming, everything going in a vast, open space. It can be helpful to think about what happens when you walk into a room: Most people see the chairs or tables or the objects in the room and fail to see the space.
- Let yourself be aware of the space surrounding all the activity, all the coming and going. Remember, whatever we can give space to can move. Keep allowing all the thoughts, all the sensations, all the feelings to rise and disappear in the vast spaciousness, like clouds in the sky.
- Finally, let your attention come to the awareness itself, vast, transparent, clear, not disturbed by anything that’s coming and going. Welcome everything, push away nothing.
Taking sick days for physical health is commonplace, but the practice of taking time off work to tend to your mental health is more of a gray area.
Many companies have policies for mental health or personal days, but it can still be hard to take time off when you simply need a mental break. You may feel guilty or hesitant to use one of your precious PTO days and push yourself to show up anyway.
Yet, when you’re feeling too stressed, you and your work suffer, potentially leading to issues that can hurt your performance and co-workers. Knowing when to take a mental health day for yourself is crucial to maintaining your overall health and well-being, both in and outside the workplace.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to take a mental health day.
When to take one
“If you feel overwhelmed, stressed, have trouble focusing or concentrating on work or at home, or are more irritable, then you may want to consider taking a mental health day. If you think about your life as a plate with sections for work, family, life, and things you like to do, and the plate is overflowing in all areas but the things you like to do, it is time for you to take a break and participate in self-care,” Dr. Ashley Hampton, a licensed psychologist and systems strategist, tells Healthline.
But remember that your mental health is just as important to your overall well-being as your physical health. Just like any bout of illness or bodily distress, your mind needs time to rest and recover.
We aren’t talking about the usual Sunday scaries, or just feeling bored or not excited to go into the office. If you wake up and feel especially stressed, down, or anxious — at a level that impairs your functioning — it’s time to consider taking the day off.
Of course, sometimes you just feel unexplainably “off.” It’s OK to take the day to yourself then, too. Use your personal judgement and listen to your mind and body. Everyone needs a mental health day from time to time.
What to say to your boss
Unfortunately, the debate over mental health days is still prevalent in many companies. Meaning, what you say to your boss is important.
“In terms of mental health days at work, I highly encourage using sick time to take care of mental health,” Hampton says.
“How to go about taking a mental health day can be tricky. I encourage everyone to determine what specific company policy is before saying anything about mental health. Not all company policies consider mental health a viable reason to take a sick day. In this case, it would be preferable to simply ask for sick time in a way that is consistent with company culture,” she says.
It may be frustrating if you’re unable to directly explain why you need time off, but as long as you’re honest in that you’re sick, not specifying it’s for your mental health is fine.
When you’re requesting time off, it’s OK to be brief. You don’t need to go into detail about why you’re taking a sick day or mental health day (unless you want to), but don’t feel like you need to justify or explain it to anyone.
Note: There are some reasons why a person wouldn’t have to tell their employer why they’re taking a day off. This is the case if the reason is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Click here to learn more.
Just like you’d treat any sick day, do things that make you feel better.
“On your mental health day, focus completely on yourself. It isn’t a day to catch up on laundry or email or cleaning your home or even running errands. Design your mental health day completely for you and about you,” Hampton says.
“If you enjoy having a massage, reading a book, watching a movie, then do those things. If you are going to take a day off work, make every minute count. The goal is to reduce any negative emotions, like stress and overwhelm,” she adds.
Of course, if doing laundry or cleaning is therapeutic for you — either because of the actual chore itself or the feeling of accomplishing a task — then knock yourself out! Just make sure whatever you’re doing makes you feel more at ease and relaxed. For some people, that could mean doing a puzzle. For others, it could mean scrubbing the bathtub.
“Give your brain a break, and do activities that you enjoy. Completing fun activities will help you relax and remind you what it feels like to take care of yourself and not everyone else all the time,” Hampton says.
Mental health days can also be a great time to practice self-care, whether that means doing a 12-step skin care routine or going for a jog in your favorite park. It may also mean sitting in bed all day watching Netflix and eating cereal. Self-care looks different for everyone.
Spend your mental health day doing things you know are beneficial to your mental and physical health. You don’t have to learn how to knit or get a facial if you aren’t sure whether it will make you feel better. Try making a list of activities that bring you joy and lift your spirits. Consult it if you need some inspiration.
If you already see a therapist and you feel like you’d benefit from an extra session during your mental health day, call them and ask if they have a slot available for an in-person or virtual session.
There are also free online counseling services, such as 7 Cups, which allows you to connect via text message to a trained volunteer to receive emotional support. You don’t have to go through a rough time alone.
It may feel weird at first to do things like getting a massage or sitting in the park on a day that you’d otherwise be working. But these activities can go a long way toward helping you feel better.
The important thing is to do what makes you feel good, not what you think you should be doing. Once you take your first mental health day, it’ll only be easier to take them in the future and not feel guilty about it.
The goal is not to get out of work; it’s to heal your mind so you can return feeling more relaxed, positive, and ready for a productive day. Mental health days are necessary for healthy, happy employees and a better workplace overall.