Just a quick note to share that the first box of Leaf Your Troubles Behind landed on my doorstep last week. What a delight! The book looks just as wonderful as I’d hoped with a beautiful layout and illustrations by Kara Fellows. And most importantly, it’s packed with stories, research, and activities about how plants can boost our mental health. I can’t wait to share it with you!
To celebrate, I’m giving away copies as early as this weekend. I’ll give newsletter subscribers the first chance with the most free copies so if you haven’t subscribed to my digest, subscribe now. Then in later July, I’ll give away a couple more copies via Goodreads. If you follow me there, you should see the giveaway offer when it happens.
I’m so excited to share with you what I’ve learned about how plants can boost our happiness. For real. They do it in so many ways and the latest research is amazing. Also what’s great is plants aren’t commercial or political or even civilized. They’re just outside doing their thing, inviting us to rediscover our earliest home and relax within their realm. They’re key to lowering anxiety, depression, angst, worry, and all else. And the best news? You don’t have to garden to gain all the benefits!
I’ve created a simple system to help people dial into happiness via the natural world. And I’ll be blogging about that system in coming weeks. I’ll also put up the additional worksheets and resources that act as a companion to the book on this website in coming days. There’s so much exciting stuff, I can barely keep track!
Anyway, I hope you have a great weekend. It’s summer and hopefully not too hot where you are. Don’t forget to get outside and get some nature therapy!
Have you ever worked in a boring, windowless office whose gray cubicle walls are the only thing you see all day? I certainly have. I once worked in an office where the most colorful image my eyes landed on was a phone extensions sheet tacked on a bulletin board. Pink and blue colors highlighted the various departments. That was it. It’s not uncommon in the modern world for offices to be enclosed environments without a window view of trees or greenery. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you don’t have a view of greenery in your office, you can make one with these three things.
1. Faux natural light.
If you can’t get sunlight or even daylight into your space, you can recreate it with a plant grow bulb. You don’t need an expensive set up of industry-grade lights. You can buy a $20 dollar desk lamp from a discount store and put an $8 full-spectrum bulb inside it. Or, for about $15, you can get a clip-on, full spectrum wand lamp. This will beam blue and ultraviolet light onto the plants, similar to the sun’s rays, thus keeping you and your plant in a cheery mood. The main thing to remember is to keep it about 10 inches or more above the plant. Otherwise, you risk scorching the leaves.
2. A plant or plants.
What do we see when we look outside? Well, that depends on where you live, but it’s often three levels of greenery. Usually we see the ground, some bushes, and trees. So as a stand-in for the ground, a grass-like plant like Spider Plant or Japanese Sedge works well. For the mounded look of shrubs, choose a Pothos or Peacock Plant. For the upright structure of a tree, add a Snake Plant or Rubber Tree. These all can take the lower intensity indoor light you’ll create with a lamp.
3. A frame.
This is optional. And you have a few choices here. You can buy a wall-mounted or tabletop “grow frame” online, which will have a full-spectrum light built into the upper board and shine on the plants. This is nice as it’s naturally self-contained, but it’s crazy expensive. Or you can build one out of wood and a pre-made picture frame. This is less expensive but requires a bit of know-how. Lastly, you can buy an IKEA Besta frame and leave off the back panel, then arrange your plants inside with the grow light shining on the plants from behind. This might be the easiest option.
Your Look and Style
The look and feel of your green view is only limited by your imagination. You can create a desert-like landscape with succulents and gravel topped pots. Or more of a rainforest look with big-leafed plants. You can try a Northwest forest with moss, sword ferns, and Norfolk Island Pine. All of these looks are a bit trickier as they require higher and lower degrees of light, humidity, and water, which you’ll have to research and apply to your space.
If you feel excited about a particular kind of green view, don’t be afraid to go for it. Experiment. We all make mistakes. That’s how we learn. Just remember to make sure all of your materials and plants are to scale with one another. You don’t want to buy a tall Snake Plant in a five-gallon pot before realizing it won’t fit in your 20” grow frame. And you don’t want a low-light, water-loving Alocasia paired with a sun-loving, low-water Aloe. If you’re a beginner and you’d like a simple arrangement where the plants match in their conditions and are easy-to-grow, go with my plant recommendations in Number 2 above. Remember, the time and money you put into this will give you ten times the reward in relaxation and stress releaf. So have fun!
Last winter, I often felt scattered and anxious before starting my day, overwhelmed by all there was to do. I needed a way to center myself for the tasks ahead. While I’ve occasionally meditated in the afternoons to reconnect with my creative self, I tended to overlook it in the morning. So I promised myself I’d set aside fifteen minutes a day to meditate. Just fifteen minutes with closed eyes, breathing. Through this technique, I found my mind calmed nicely down and I sorted out my main priorities. I was able to organize my day and felt more grounded heading into it.
A Gorgeous Garden to Focus on
Nowadays when I feel particularly scattered, I don’t close my eyes but rather focus my attention on a favorite scene from nature. Because scientists tell us that gazing at flowers and plants calms our nervous system, I thought I’d give this a try. So I started sitting in front of a favorite poster. I found it years ago at a craft store. I love this poster so much that when the original had faded, I bought a new one online.
It’s a photo of a little black cat in the aisle of a lush garden. The little guy or gal simply sits there, dwarfed by the colorful perennials and lone tree at the path’s end. He or she seems content with the day. Its tiny dark body mirrors the dark tree trunk before it. This moment, this snippet of grace, somehow allows me to believe that everything in my life will be okay. It’s a miniature escape from the real world, and gosh, with all the sadness of the real world, do I need it.
The photo is by Greg Gawlowski, who I unfortunately don’t know much about. His website seems to be offline. Here’s his instagram (I think) in case you’re interested in exploring his work. I wish I knew where he’d taken this photo, whose garden it was and where that little kitty lived. Regardless, it’s given me a huge gift: not just immense pleasure, but a regular dose of much needed relaxation and health.
Do you have a favorite green scene you like to rest your attention on? Let me know!
Earlier this year, I worked with a sleep specialist. I wanted to regain those luxurious seven and a half hours I’ve usually slept these last several years. But in January, I started experiencing intermittent bouts of insomnia and by February it became chronic. So I sought out a sleep doctor and worked with a specialist nurse to track my nighttime habits.
We went over the usual litany of possible obstructions to sleep: screen time in the late evening, the glow of nightlights, bed comfort, room temperature, unwanted noise, alcohol use, etc. These are all part of what experts call “sleep hygiene.” In other words, how well you accommodate your body’s natural ability to become sleepy and actually sleep. My sleep hygiene was quite good. I’d solved earlier problems of noise and light on my own, which left the last and most common factor in getting good rest: stress.
Investigating my Habits
I’ve experienced it a lot these last two years. The pandemic put a huge strain on our family. We had pets die. My sister was diagnosed with advanced cancer. Despite these circumstances, my nurse told me over 90 percent of insomnia cases are solved with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I was skeptical but willing to try. And so, I began a system of tracking my sleep.
I created logs where I wrote down when I feel asleep, how long I slept, and when/how many times I woke up. I also tracked when I got in bed and left my bed. It was all kind of silly to me since my pattern was stable. Fall asleep for a few hours, wake for a couple hours, then sleep for two hours or so. On really bad nights, I experienced very little if any deep, black out sleep.
Our aim was to figure out how much sleep I could generate. Some folks only sleep about six hours and seem to be fine so we needed to find out how long my body needed. I started staying up until one in the morning and setting an alarm for seven. This strategy didn’t help. I was tired at midnight but then overtired by one and couldn’t fall asleep. Plus, I caught a cold and felt rundown. So I ditched this method.
We talked more about cognitive issues and winding down my thoughts at the end of the night. This has been difficult since I’ve been dealing with all of what I described above. And then there’s always a ton of the next day’s work to think about!
My specialist advised me not to stay in bed whenever I was conscious as this often led to me seeing my bed as a place of worry and stress when it should be a clear-headed refuge. But I like to read in bed before falling asleep. I like to wake up slowly and let’s face it, there was no way I was getting up during the night to sit in a cold quiet house or wash dishes or watch TV.
The Effective Strategy I Discovered
In the end, I discovered a strategy on my own that gave me good solid sleep. It was something unexpected and easier than I’d imagined. And it had no tracking or psychological “shoulds” built into it. And of course no medication.
You might have heard of “morning pages.” It’s the daily ritual of writing three pages of stream of consciousness as soon as you wake up. The idea is to declutter your mind before going on with your day. Start off mentally free and clear. Author Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist’s Way, created the practice. And several creatives I know swear by it.
To be honest though, I could never get into the habit of morning pages. I’ve kept gratitude journals before but not morning ones. After I wake up, I’ve always felt too sleepy to journal and never had much clutter in my head in the morning anyway. I mean, I’d just woken up from being unconscious, which had wiped my worries and concerns away for the night.
So I flipped the habit around. Instead of journaling in the morning, I journaled right before sleep. I free wrote in bed, a stream of consciousness without editing. I started with how the day went. What was bothering me, worrying me, annoying me, whatever. I cut loose, not holding anything back. I bitched, griped, felt sorry for myself, bemoaned whatever went wrong. My grievances tumbled onto the page.
Also, I wrote down my not-so-emotional stuff. What I had to figure out. What I had to tackle. Who to call or email the next day. The stuff that was still unfinished and would carry over into the next day. I dumped it all onto the page.
The Unexpected Happened
After a few days of this, an interesting thing happened. I slept better. I fell asleep more quickly and stayed asleep longer. It was as if I’d drained my brain and it was ready to do nothing else except shut off. Since I’d put all those thoughts and feelings bouncing around in my mind on the page, I had nothing else to mentally spin out about. It was all external and somehow finished for the time being. What’s more, it was in a place I could refer back to the next day if I needed to. But heh, it turned out I rarely needed to.
Since I’ve been writing in my night diary, I’ve slept in a deep blackout sleep most nights. If I do wake up, I’m not automatically stressing so much about being awake or what’s bothering me or what’s on my mind. I feel more clear-headed, more relaxed and I fall back to sleep more easily.
It’s as if the page has absorbed all of my mental junk and is holding it there for me until I’m ready to deal with it again. It reminds me of David Allen’s system of Getting Things Done. He recommends writing out every little and big thing you have to do in order for you to clear your head of the stress that work generates. It’s about dumping all the unfinished stuff out of your mind so you can get organized.
This tactic is in some ways similar. I write for as many pages or as few paragraphs as I need. I don’t judge my writing or my life, I just record. Feelings and frustrations are best. And to be honest, since I’ve been night writing regularly, my days have gotten less stressful. Perhaps because I’m more rested, I don’t know.
Also, I don’t date my entries because I don’t need to review on what day which kind of stress happened. There’s not much point in that for me, although some folks may find that useful. I’m more inclined to write out the stress and move on. In fact, I’m thinking of recycling all my entries at each month’s end so I don’t judge myself for feeling badly about the same thing more than once.
A Recommended Respite
Nowadays, I actually look forward to getting into my bed. I journal and then, when I have nothing more to write, I read a light book and sleep. I encourage you to try it. If you can at least empty your mind of your stress and its related mental junk, you’ll probably be able to shut down for a longer rest. Then, because of that sleep, you might end up having better days since you’ll be rested, more clear-headed, and able to seize the day with more positive energy.
If you’re struggling through a stressful workweek, you may feel like you have no time to lower your stress. You’re juggling multiple tasks while your attention springs from one event to another. This is typical as we try to get through the avalanche of work that piles up. By Friday, we’re burnt out and ready for a change. But deciding what that change is can be tricky. Yes, you can plop in front of a screen with a show or video game, but that may only increase our stress. Yes, there’s shopping at the mall but shopping costs money. This is why I always fall back on an old reliable standby to destress from work: playing with my houseplants.
Now, don’t get me wrong. When I say “playing” with my houseplants, what I mean is fiddling with them. I arrange their pots on shelves and stands for a new look. I clean up their dead leaves and water their soil. Lastly, I transplant whatever looks pot bound. The plants reward me with not only a fresh look for my room, but a simple, relaxing endeavor.
The relaxation part is a subconscious event. It’s not anything I consciously think about as I’m doing it. But I gradually feel a sense of “coming down” from the hectic pace of my workweek. I slow my behavior toward a task that doesn’t have a big end goal. There aren’t a million things to do with houseplant care. It’s actually really simple. And that’s the playing part. Play has low goals, isn’t complex, and happens at a comfortable pace.
Science Says Fifteen Minutes Is Enough
What’s interesting is my little visit with a houseplant here and there reaps big rewards. Researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki helps us see why. He conducted a small study with young men in their twenties who transplanted plants during a break from stressful, computer-oriented work. The subjects worked for 15 minutes with a Vining Pepper Plant (peperomia dahlstedtii) over the course of three days. Their sympathetic nervous systems and blood pressure were monitored. He also measured these systems while the subjects worked at a computer task.
You can guess the results. During the plant-related task, the sympathetic nervous system activity was about four points lower than the computer-related task. Blood pressure lowered by six points. By contrast, sympathetic nervous system activity and blood pressure were both higher during computer-related engagement. Subjects reported feeling much more comfortable, soothed, and natural when working with the plants. They felt much less comfortable, soothed, and natural when working on the computer. It’s not too surprising. But this study scientifically proves the value of playing with houseplants, even for a brief time and with little experience.
Which Plant to Play With?
This weekend, see if you can make time to fiddle with a houseplant. Saturday morning always work for me. And the ritual doesn’t have to be long. It seems 15 minutes will do. And if you don’t have a houseplant, this study offers a good reason to buy one. You can spend as little as fifteen dollars, if you’re willing to start with a small plant in a four-inch pot. A pothos or snake plant are good choices. Set near a north or east-facing window and water every seven to ten days. On the weekends, take your time checking on it. Trim its brown leaves off, dust it with a damp cloth, turn it so another side faces the light. You may enjoy this soothing little activity so much that you’ll want to grow another and another and another until you create your own special plant playground.