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This Week’s Guest Blogger is Michael Valentine

Gardening: The escape from my thoughts

Growing up with anxiety disorders, it was a rare occasion for me to find peace in my life.  No matter where I went or what I did, my thoughts would follow and taunt me.  However, being in the garden was the one consistent place I could retreat to and experience peace in my life.

My first panic attack that I can remember was when I was five years old.  It was probably more memorable as it resulted in my arms crashing through a glass door.  The kind of experience a young child would not forget.

To explain what a panic attack is, the best definition I can think of is “fear beyond fear”.  A panic attack is the greatest amount of fear that a person can experience in any given moment.

During most of my younger years my anxiety disorders mainly manifested as generalized anxiety.  Which essentially consisted of being in a heightened state of nervousness and worry, with a haze of fear cast over just about every thought I had and influencing almost every experience I was part of.

On the property that I grew up on there was always a vegetable garden.  Years earlier my grandfather had what could be considered a small farm on this very property.  He raised rabbits and chickens, grew crops and had a variety of fruit trees.  He loved his fruit trees.

Unfortunately, he passed away when I was quite young.  But the legacy that he left would certainly play a huge role in my life in many ways.

Since I was a young boy, every spring my mother and I would venture out into the yard to plant a vegetable garden.  I would be responsible for turning the dirt and then one by one plant the seedlings ever so gently.  Followed by the daily chores of weeding, watering and nurturing the little seedlings all the way through till harvest.

Later, as I became older, I realized that while out in the garden I did not have higher levels of anxiety.  Many times, in fact, while in the garden it felt as if my anxiety had disappeared altogether.  I did not understand why or how that could be, but it certainly was a welcome reprieve from my suffering.  More so in my later teens when my anxiety disorders had escalated and turned into phobias, and panic disorder was beginning to set in.

Since learning the recovery process, what I found out is that all anxiety lives in the future.  You see all anxiety, regardless of the specific cause or fear, begins with a single thought; a “what if” thought that is projected to a specific situation sometime in the future.

Recovery from anxiety disorders is essentially being able to “look away” from our fear and change our focus away from the “what if” thoughts to something that is not frightening to us.

This is what was happening to me while I was in the garden; my attention was taken away from my “what if” thoughts and I was focused on the plants I was caring for.  This allowed my levels of anxiety to become lower, and in many cases disappear completely for short periods of time.

In order to create full recovery, I used behavior modification to create a new emotional response to my specific triggers.  With this approach, we condition ourselves to be able to look away from our fear and not believe the “what if” thoughts that cause higher levels of anxiety.  Essentially being able to manage our thoughts and therefore stabilizing our emotional state.

Looking back over the years, there were certainly some very dark days in my life.  But the one constant joy that I had was being in the garden.

Some people say everything happens for a reason, I don’t know if I can completely agree with that.  However, when I consider my own journey, its difficult for me to dispute that statement.  Obviously, the person I am today is a culmination of all my experiences.  And the argument can be made that all those experiences happened for a reason.

Even now, after creating full recovery from anxiety disorders and living an unrestricted life; each spring I find myself out in the garden, turning dirt.

Currently I have devoted my efforts to helping other people create recovery for themselves.  Ten years ago, I completed my certification training within the program where I created recovery myself.  After being employed by the treatment center for several years running anxiety & phobia specific workshops and a weekly support group, I went on my own to spread the program through varies methods.  Recently I’ve created an online system that includes a video series, podcast, community forum and a blog; all in effort to help reach others that are in need of support & guidance.  http://www.anxietypath.com

I thank the people behind the Gardening For Disabled charity for giving me this opportunity to share my story.

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