Nature Scenes Reduce Anxiety. How about Gardens?

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Lake Artemesia in College Park, Maryland

The other day I was listening to a podcast about anxiety – an interview with a Dr. Bill Knaus, author The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety. Naturally, he mentioned the positive effects of nature, even images of nature.

Serene nature scenes reduce stress. As little as 5 minutes a day of walking in nature can have a positive effect. You don’t have to be in nature to enjoy the benefits. A nature scene photo or painting can calm the mind and feel relaxing.

He goes on to say that not all nature scenes stimulate tranquility – imagine a scene that includes a bear running in your direction.

So which nature scenes are the most beneficial?

There are some ingredients that science has found useful to promote a sense of serenity and a sense of thriving. One is blue skies, green fields and water. But it’s just not blue skies, green fields and water but they exist in an open landscape, possibly extending to rolling hills, but that’s not necessary.

The idea is that you’re looking from a sheltered vantage point. You don’t see any dangers because you can look ahead and see any in advance and if you do see a danger, you have plenty of advance warning, so you’re more comfortable in that type of setting.

When I heard that I happened to be walking around a gorgeous lake – the pristine scene of blues skies, green plants and water you see in the photo above. I stopped to appreciate it, and take the photo, as one does.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that landscapes that are open are more calming because they allow us to see potential dangers coming at us – our ancestral brains are wired that way, even in the absence of charging bears in our urban lives.

My back garden, as seen this week from the screened-in porch.

But when it comes to gardens, we don’t want that openness; we want enclosure, and privacy. We want garden rooms, not open fields or meadows. At least this gardener very much wanted enclosure for my little townhouse back yard and am thrilled to finally have it after 7 years here, thanks to getting permission to build a privacy screen, and also planting a few small trees.

So I wonder if tests on anxiety reduction have been done in gardens? Have they tested the impact of openness versus enclosure? Because personally I feel safer in this little space than in an open field somewhere.

Dr. Knaus did go on to say:

You can add an ingredient, such as a stream that winds into a wooded area, that  may also trigger a sense of curiosity, so you not only are going to feel more serene but also your curiosity is piqued and curiosity can be a driving force so that you can move on to something more active and more directed with a greater sense of openness to your experience and looking around to see what life is like for you.

Isn’t that what gardens do?

11 COMMENTS

  1. Have you read Julie Moir Meservy’s The Inward Garden (1995)? It’s a genuinely original book on garden design that was hugely helpful to me. The basic idea is that there are a set of spatial archetypes that appeal differently to different people. One of them is the looking-out-onto-open-area from a sheltered spot (“snug harbor”), and although that has strong and wide appeal, it’s far from the only or necessarily most satisfying garden arrangement for everyone. The book is worth checking out IMO at any stage of garden development, to help you understand why some parts of your own and others’ gardens resonate or don’t.

  2. I look at the photo of your garden, and I feel relaxed.–Hidden, but not too hidden. Thus, my unscientific vote is that gardens also reduce stress. Science or no science, mine does.

  3. “The idea is that you’re looking from a sheltered vantage point” – I believe is why we like and build our enclosed garden spaces ie we build the sheltered vantage point so we can safely view the open (sometimes ‘hostile’) spaces in urban environments.

  4. Expanding a little bit on Nell’s mention of how different garden types appeal to different people, I have found that your childhood surroundings affects how you feel about different landscapes. I played as a child in a densely wooded landscape with hills and ravines. I am sometimes a little nervous in areas that are too flat and open, I feel too exposed. A friend moved with her children from the western US to my hilly home area. Her children were stressed by traveling on roads where the trees met overhead. The one child said he felt imprisoned by green.

  5. I can’t agree more that gardens are powerful in affecting how we feel. I give gardening talks around the UK and one talk is titled “The Power of Gardening”.

  6. I think humans are the only species that thinks of themselves as separate from nature. Other species also build environments (think birds’s nests and beaver dams for example), and we see those somehow as part of nature. So then the question is: if we are part of nature like every other creature, why do we build anxiety-provoking environments that make us anxious and that we have to “escape” from? On the other hand, I know people who are very unsettled and anxious in nature; it makes them nervous to be without walls and a roof, exposed to bugs, wind and weather.

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