5 Ways Gardening Can Reduce Depression & Anxiety | Conversation With Dr. Madhukar Trivedi

A photograph of Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, an expert in the connection between gardening and depression, dressed in a white lab coat. Overwritten text talks lists his titles at UTSW Medical Center.

The wellness industry is full of products and programs that promise to reduce anxiety and depression. But what if the answer actually lies in our own backyards or on our patio?

We had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, Professor of Psychiatry, Chief of the Division of Mood Disorders, Director of the Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care, Betty Jo Hay Distinguished Chair in Mental Health and Julie K. Hersh Chair for Depression Research at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, TX.

Dr. Trivedi’s work is at the front-line of psychological research, exploring topics including resilience and potential biosignatures of depression as well as revolutions in its treatment. And while understanding of the field is still unfolding, Trivedi has, through his research, witnessed the benefits of treating depression through an age-old practice: gardening. 

There is mounting evidence that gardening improves mental health through improving mood, boosting self-esteem, improving attention span, providing exercise, and encouraging community and social bonds as explained in several articles and studies.  

As part of a multi-tiered approach to treatment, here are some of the benefits of gardening when it comes to fighting depression, as explained by Dr. Trivedi as well as other leading experts in the field.  

“The effect of gardening on the brain, whether you are at the start or middle of your journey with it… is fascinating.”

Dr. Madhukar Trivedi Professor of Psychiatry; Betty Jo Hay Distinguished Chair in Mental Health; Julie K. Hersh Chair for Depression Research and Clinical Care

It promotes mindfulness.

Ever feel like your mind can never stop working? That’s because, well, it can’t. 

“When we do brain imaging studies,” Trivedi explains, “one of the things we see is that even when you’re technically at rest, your brain is still active.”

This is especially true of people struggling with depression. Through his research, Trivedi has witnessed higher levels of overactivity in those who have been diagnosed with or are prone to the disorder. Gardening, he suggests, can help mitigate this. 

“​​Gardening, like any effort or attempted mindfulness, actually quiets down the ‘default mode’ [of your brain],” he says. “Your brain is ready and available to respond to stimuli from within or outside [the body] in a much more appropriate manner.”

It gets you active.

“People who have a routine habit of exercise or outdoor activity have lower rates of depression”

Dr. Madhukar Trivedi Professor of Psychiatry; Betty Jo Hay Distinguished Chair in Mental Health; Julie K. Hersh Chair for Depression Research and Clinical Care

In addition to being a mindful practice, gardening also gets the body moving. A large part of Dr. Trivedi’s research is grounded in using physical activity and more vigorous aerobic exercise as a treatment for depression. The science on this, he explains, is very clear.

“People who have a routine habit of exercise or outdoor activity have lower rates of depression,” Trivedi says. “Data from the Cooper Institute [shows that] people with physical activity as part of their routine are at lower risk of depression than those who have no physical activity. The reverse is true, as well…when people who have depression engage in physical activity, their recovery is better.”

And while the pros of exercise are irrefutable, Dr. Trivedi cautions that they tend to be short-lived.  It’s essential, he emphasizes, to incorporate physical activity into an ongoing routine to continually reap the benefits.  A study from the NHS, cites “The Department of Health in England calculated that just a 10% increase in activity by adults can postpone 6000 deaths and save $675 million in healthcare costs. Regular moderate-intensity exercise may reduce the risk of dementia, mental health problems, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer of the breast and colon, and in an Australian study, gardening was found to be more effective than walking, education, or maintaining alcohol intake at moderate levels in protecting against dementia”.

“Exercise, or gardening for that matter, has a short-lasting effect immediately,” he advises. “Activity really can lead to improvement in depression overall, but that activity does take time. So, you have to do it regularly and repetitiously. You can’t just go out and plant a few plants and say ‘My gardening cured my depression.’” 

It builds community.

Anxiety and depression are particularly lonely diseases, sometimes isolating the sufferer and alienating them from others. 

“​​With depression, you are basically kind of withdrawing, feeling sad and kind of hopeless and within yourself,” Dr. Trivedi explains. “Anxiety is really primarily driven by your unformed and unexplainable fear of something internal or external.”

Ironically, being around people in a loving and supportive way is a critical step in healing. However, finding and/or building these communities in our increasingly digitized world can prove especially difficult. Particularly over the past two years, it has become increasingly difficult to create, maintain and revel in meaningful and supportive human relationships. Gardening, according to science, can help with this. 

Generations of evidence show that anyone from hospital patients to prison inmates have improved mental health from therapeutic gardens introduced into their environments. Even Florence Nightingale saw their benefit when she introduced them in the 1800s in Italy for the benefit of patients, visitors, and hospital staff. Gardens reduced stress, increased satisfaction, and stronger community.  

This topic was recently discussed by Dr. Seth J. Gillihan and professional gardener Joe Lamp’l on Dr. Gillihan’s podcast, Think Act Be. “Few things boost our well-being like good relationships,” Lamp’l says, “and gardening offers ample opportunities to connect with others…not only the nuts and bolts of gardening but the emotional and spiritual connections we can experience with our gardens.”  

Lamp’l also noted that “gardening is one of the best ways to connect strangers” and quickly cultivate meaningful relationships through shared experience. “It’s a collective effort, and we’re all better together when we share our experiences.”

It creates a growth mindset and increases brain plasticity.

As Dr. Trivedi explained, anxiety is often driven and exacerbated by fear of the unknown. The reality is that we can never be sure that our lives will go exactly the way we have planned, no matter how hard we try to control them. 

Learning to combat these existential fears and moving towards a place of peace is part of what we refer to as the “growth mindset.” According to Dr. Trivedi’s research, learning to exist in this headspace can be essential for healing. 

“There is this whole area of mindfulness-based therapy where you become mindful of this current circumstance so that then your response is appropriate to the circumstance,” he explains. “When you engage in thinking about gratitude…on a regular basis, you are training your brain circuits to experience that positive mood. That means that part of the circuit is getting rewired by training.”

Dr. Trivedi suggests that engaging in activities that, like gardening, promote a growth mindset are proven to help those suffering heal.

“We have now research showing that activities [such as gardening] can improve brain plasticity and improve your resilience,” Dr. Trivedi says. “People who have a routine habit of exercise or outdoor activity, have lower rates of depression. That has been well documented.

Interview with Dr. Trivedi of UTSW

It boosts brain chemicals.

“With a bit of positive psychology or positive thoughts, you can actually change the way your brain is wired.”

Dr. Madhukar Trivedi Professor of Psychiatry; Betty Jo Hay Distinguished Chair in Mental Health; Julie K. Hersh Chair for Depression Research and Clinical Care

Serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are the three neurotransmitters found in the brain, and, according to Dr. Trivedi, a balance of all three is necessary.

“It is becoming very clear that the way to think about brain function is to [think about] the functioning of each circuit, and several circuits in the brain oversee different functions,” he says. 

These circuits can be affected in depressed patients, requiring intervention to help regulate them. Treatment can include medicines such as SSRIs, as well as other clinically-researched programs and activities. 

As mentioned above, studies have shown that positivity and gratitude can transform the way the brain is wired.  It is not a single instance of gratitude, but thinking about gratitude on a regular basis that helps rewire and retrain the brain towards positive thinking. 

In essence, when presented with a positive thought or experience, the brain circuit that is responsible for experiencing happiness transfers that information from one cell to another, circulating it throughout the brain.  

“With a bit of positive psychology or positive thoughts, you can actually change the way your brain is wired,” he says. “However, when somebody has symptoms of depression that are overtaking them, it is hard to experience [gratitude].

So, what you have to do is train yourself before [symptoms begin] and get treated with some medication therapy, etc [after they set it]. After you start getting better, [it’s easier to] focus on things like gratitude, grit, etc., to build resilience so that it doesn’t come back.”

Science has shown that the same can be said when gardening. 

“The same research [on gratitude] talks about the act of gardening rewires your brain,” Trivedi reveals. “All conduits or platforms to help with anxiety and depression and overall mental health …are important.”

This means that if you are looking to combat future episodes of depression, it’s best to start when you are feeling good.  At Gardenuity, we like to say that each day we are growing gratitude and maybe a boost of self-esteem when we can use our latest harvest in our meal or cocktail.

The Takeaway

While gardening is not the be-all, end-all cure to depression and anxiety, the science is clear: it can help. And, perhaps most importantly, the activity can be an important step in healing mental health.  Habit stacking. 

“One of the major tragedies [in my area] is that it takes 10 to 12 years for people to get diagnosed, treated,” Trivedi says. “ That delay of 10 to 12 years has a very negative effect on people’s lives. It needs to change.”

Getting in the garden, he says, is a start.  

“No one treatment is going to bring people back from when they are depressed,” he adds. “To feel ‘back to normal,’ there are going to be a number of different levels of intervention. That’s where… gardening starts easily fitting in.”

Note: some quotes have been slightly edited for length and clarity.

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