Photo Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Whether you’re working from home, temporarily out of work, or putting in even longer hours than usual as an essential worker, the coronavirus pandemic has only increased job-related stress. For parents with children at home due to school and daycare closings, the risk of burnout is even greater. In a special selection from her new book ‘The Well-Gardened Mind’ (available now from Simon & Schuster), Sue Stuart-Smith explores the concept of garden therapy and how reconnecting with nature can help improve sleep, restore energy, and more. 

Rising job insecurity and competitive cultures of overwork have led to a dramatic increase in workplace-based stress over the last couple of decades. Cities are full of offices in which people continue the working day well into the evening, and there are plenty of organizations in which it is considered a badge of honor not to take all your paid holiday leave. Many teachers, doctors, and nurses are struggling with increased demand to meet targets in services that are under-resourced. Whatever the line of work, it has become the norm for people to be at risk of burnout. Stress has recently become the most common single reason for people to take sick leave from work.  

Burnout is what happens when there is not enough recovery time and the ability to regulate stress is lost. It increases the risk of depression and is linked to higher rates of a number of physical disorders, including heart disease and diabetes. Physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress was given the name “burnout” in 1974 by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. One of the most important centers for treating burnout and stress disorders through horticulture is in Sweden. Over the last fifteen years or more, Professor Patrik Grahn and his colleagues at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp have developed an intensive twelve-week program of garden therapy. They have published numerous studies demonstrating the benefit of what has become known as “the Alnarp model.”  

The ethos is multidisciplinary. Grahn, who has a background in landscape architecture, designed the garden, and a team consisting of an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist, a psychodynamic psychotherapist, and a horticulturalist deliver the program. The majority of their patients are women, from professions like teaching, nursing, medicine, and law, who are on long-term sick leave and have not responded to other treatments. Typically, they are high-achieving, conscientious people whose health has collapsed through a combination of work overload and family commitments. They suffer from anxiety, and their lack of mental and physical energy means they find it hard to concentrate or make decisions. Because their self-esteem is strongly invested in performing well at work, they struggle with feelings of guilt and shame about not being able to work.  

The Alnarp therapy garden is enclosed within a russet-red picket fence on the edge of the university campus. The program is run from a traditional wooden building in the center of the five-acre site. The main room has a simple, homey feel and opens onto a wooden deck overlooking the vegetable beds. Beyond these, there is an attractive open view over a meadow and woodland. Standing on the deck, you don’t feel that this setup is part of a university or that there is a busy campus close by; only the distant noise of traffic on the highway breaks the feeling of total seclusion.  

The garden encompasses both wild and cultivated nature because people have different needs at different stages of their treatment. The cultivation areas include two greenhouses and a mixture of raised and low-level beds for vegetables, fruits, and herbs. In contrast, the wilder parts of the garden offer an experience of nature free from a compulsion to do anything. There are also a number of secluded “garden rooms” where people can seek refuge.  

The participants, most of whom have not gardened before, attend four mornings a week for twelve weeks. After a few days of settling in, the therapist tells them to choose a restful place where they can spend time alone. Some carry mattresses out to the wilder parts of the garden; others use the hammock, the swing seat, or one of the benches in the garden rooms. Through their illness they have become disconnected from their bodies and from the world. They need to find a way to reestablish contact at the most basic level through their senses and feelings. … 

The staff at Alnarp regularly observe the need to revert to simpler relations with trees, water, or stones. Their participants are free to choose what they want to commune with, and occasionally someone will clamber up to sit on the flat top of the large boulder by the pond. Finding a safe way of beginning to relate to the world like this helps them emerge from their closed-in state. After a week or two, their feelings of curiosity begin to return, and they start exploring the rest of the garden. As they do so, there are plenty of opportunities for foraging, and the wild strawberries, in particular, are popular.  

After about six weeks, most of the participants are experiencing a better quality of sleep, and their physical and mental energy is improving. Their scores on rating scales for feelings of empowerment and emotional coherence are monitored, and by now these are showing improvement. They are able to get stuck into longer spells of garden work, which helps relieve the muscular tension that many of them suffer from. Part of the state of disconnection is that they have long since stopped listening to warning signals from their bodies. Now they are encouraged to tune in and take breaks when they feel tired. 

Read more about the Alnarp model and the restorative power of nature in The Well-Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith. 

Excerpted from The Well-Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith. Copyright © 2020 by the author. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. Simon & Schuster is a property of ViacomCBS.