This is a topic I find difficult to put into words. I’ve been putting it off for almost a decade but have always felt it needed to be shared at some point to help others who might need it. To cut to the point, everyday I struggle with managing stress and anxiety, brought on by the kind of things that for some people can seem meaningless. My new book, A Greener Life, discusses the issue throughout, putting it into the universe for all to read, making the time, if not quite right for me, now or never.
While I have always been like this, I seemed to overcome both stress and anxiety in my twenties, when I felt invincible. Heading into my thirties, whether due to growing older or as work responsibilities increased, I found it increasingly debilitating in a number of ways. To a point about seven years ago where my entire grip on the world felt like it was fragmenting.
Triggers for stress and anxiety
My stress and anxieties I would describe as an inner negative voice, a constant blanket of worry on my life that can weigh me down, it’s always there, waiting to hold me back. Everyone experiences these things differently and to me it is more the regular everyday stresses, the things I’m aware are probably quite normal, the things that probably affect a fair number of people.
As I’ve grown older, hitting forty last year, I’ve come to suspect almost everyone suffers from stress and anxiety in some way all of the time, it’s part of being human. Something psychologists explain as an evolutionary trait, coming from the flight or fight to escape danger, that hasn’t quite adjusted for our modern way of living.
I think I’ve whittled down my feelings to three main triggers, often interwoven:
- Worrying what people think of what I do
- Committing to more things than I can realistically work through at once
- Not feeling in control of certain parts of my life
Ways to cope
When I feel stressed or anxious, I cannot sleep, and when I can’t sleep things get worse. I can’t think clearly, I feel negative, I get ill from colds or stomach bugs. I become someone who can’t be much fun to be around, talking about the worries constantly, unable to take my mind off them.
One technique I’ve found helps is to stop and think carefully about what is causing the build up of feelings. Sometimes I can work this back to an email, a tweet, a project. When I pinpoint the cause, I can often see the feeling is bigger than the thing that caused it, convince myself it’s not that bad and move on. This can work but sometimes it isn’t enough.
Our connection to nature
Then, gardening and nature came into my life, or technically I should say, I became aware of it in my life again. I have always loved nature and as a boy I grew stuff. But between my late-teens and early thirties I didn’t pay it enough attention. Looking back at holiday photos, they were all of plants and wildlife. It’s obvious I have always loved nature but for some reason I wasn’t aware exactly how fundamental it was to me.
In my mid-thirties I dropped down to 4 days a week at work, allowing a fifth free day to do what I wanted – something I highly recommend. It was my day, taken in the week when everyone else was at work, so it couldn’t be filled with other things. In that day I rediscovered growing plants and I explored and learnt more about nature.
I found that this was the happiest time in my life, everything felt balanced and my mind was occupied on something endlessly fascinating and fun to me. Our garden in London became an obsession and the focus of my antidote to the feelings I was struggling with. In my head I thought of it as this line from an Elton John song “if the phoenix bird can fly, then so can I” – the garden represented my internal healing through growing.
I expect this process works with whatever hobby or interest you have, to take time for yourself, but I also believe the natural world holds something for each and every one of us, because we are part of it.
How gardening and nature can help with stress and anxiety
Gardening and exploring nature helped my stress and anxiety subside and this is how:
- Escapism: doing some gardening requires attention, even if it’s simply looking around, getting outside forces us to look and see what’s going on or to focus on the task at hand, be it weeding, sowing, snipping, picking or watering.
- Creative thinking: planning what to plant is a creative process and being creative can be all consuming for your mind. Like many things in this list, planning a garden and being creative can break the cycle of your mind focussing on your worries.
- Curiosity: gardens and nature never stand still, it can take your mind off of issues troubling you through curiosity. If I go outside into our garden, or go for a walk and look around, I soon find my mind has wandered to see if a new flower has opened, or if I can spot something in the wild on a walk.
- Responsibility: I find the process of growing plants from seed and nurturing them to full size gives me a long-term living thing to look after, returning to see how it grows. I think about it and feel I have a small purpose in looking after it in future, otherwise it won’t do well. This small amount of responsibility, increased by growing a garden full of plants, gives my life a bit of meaning that feels that bit more important than almost all worries in my life. Whatever I may be stressed about, this responsibility of looking after my garden is enough to break my thoughts for even a short amount of time.
- Future planning: growing things takes your mind out of the present because you are always thinking about what they could be doing in the future. I get excited about spring and summer when some of my plans for new planting will come true. When I’m feeling negative, this focus is always a little bit cheering.
- Confidence building: in gardening there are lots of things that can and do go wrong, but the more you grow, the more chances of success there are. When things go well, and indeed wrong, you learn. So the more you grow, the better you get at gardening. This gives me confidence that increases year on year that I do get some things right and will do that little bit better with each passing year.
These days stress and anxiety are still a part of my life, some days I have those sleepless nights over nothing, but my love of gardening and nature help me keep it in check, as do my friends and my partner, Chris. I have to mention our cat Rumbles too who always makes me laugh, lifting my mood. Managing stress and anxiety is a constant process of keeping them in check, not taking too much on and making time for the things that break that cycle of thoughts.
I wrote my new book, A Greener Life, to help people who struggle like me. It’s a practical gardening book written as a kind of self-help book to use gardening to manage and cope with everyday stress and anxiety. If you think it will help you, I would love you to read it – I don’t care if you buy it or not, pick it up and read it in the shop or read it in the library. My hope is that it might resonate with you, to help in even a small way. That would make me happy.
If you struggle with any kind of stress or worry, please also check out Mind for some great advice.