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Natural Therapy: Using Nature To Ease Patient Anxiety

by Tara Roberts, Master Gardener and Registered Dental Hygienist

I am a dental hygienist. I know my profession strikes fear in many…believe me, we hear this weekly. "I hate coming to the dentist" is a very familiar statement all dental professionals hear from our patients. Most dental professionals I know do their absolute best to make patients feel comfortable and safe in the dental setting, but what if medical and dental offices are overlooking the role nature can play in reducing anxiety?

More than 17 years ago, when I first saw the office that would later become my dental home, I was immediately drawn to it because of the lovely gardens overlooking every patient room. Long before I was a Master Gardener, I already appreciated the effects of gardening and landscaping on my own stress and anxiety reduction. For some people, stress reduction comes from the physical activity of gardening, but decades of research prove that simply being around greenery and nature can provide significant mental and emotional health benefits.

Texas A&M University researchers Charles Hall and Melinda Knuth published in the Journal of Environmental Horticulture noting the mental health benefits of being in or around green spaces, including nature and cultivated gardens. Their research indicates that nature can improve our moods, provide stress reduction, encourage physical activity, improve cognition, encourage positive behaviors and improve the overall well-being in people of all ages.  

I didn't really need research to prove this because, as the old saying goes, "the proof is in the pudding." Around our office, we hear comments from patients all day, every day, about our gardens. The view is different from every room and patients often declare their opinion about which room has the best view. The dental setting is not only stressful for patients but also often stressful for staff because of the fast-paced environment and managing patient stress and anxiety. Looking out on beautiful gardens certainly reduces my daily stress, as does having plants inside the office. Many medical offices do not have the luxury of having windows overlooking every room, but incorporating indoor plants is proven to have similar effects as outdoor plants.  

Regardless of age or gender, we hear positive comments from patients about the gardens surrounding our office. A college-aged patient recently said, "I love your gardens. I told my mom the first time I visited that I liked this office even more because it had plants." I told her I was working on an article about that very topic, and she only confirmed what countless others have told us over the years.

And boy, do patients have opinions! We hear the good, the bad and the ugly. They will certainly let us know when the gardens need a seasonal refresh or overhaul. The transition from winter to spring draws the most comments. I always laugh when patients comment after a seasonal refresh and say it was certainly needing attention.

Our staff takes pride in maintaining the gardens and relishes the lovely comments we hear from patients weekly. Thankfully, we have employees who share a passion for gardening who help take care of the plants and doctors who appreciate the importance of the gardens and give us funds when needed to maintain the landscaping.

The medical profession is not the only environment that has drawn the attention of researchers. Published studies have also shown that greenery reduces stress and anxiety in another often stressful place: the airport. Not only has research indicated a boost in mood and energy, but greenery and foliage also act to purify the air and reduce sounds within airports and create more relaxing spaces. I saw this firsthand while traveling on a dental mission trip to Thailand last summer. We flew through several airports that had green areas and our mission team really appreciated the brief exposure to nature after several long international flights. 

Horticulture therapy does not have to be hands-on to invoke calming feelings or reduce stress. Countless research studies (and my very informal research from working in an office surrounded by nature) have revealed the numerous benefits of indoor and outdoor green spaces. I hope you will consider bringing a little green to your corner of your workplace. There are so many great options for low light or artificial light situations that finding a plant for your space is as simple as a visit to your local garden center. Bring the outdoors in and sprinkle a little positivity with garden therapy!

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Hall, C., and M. Knuth. “An Update of the Literature Supporting the Well-Being Benefits of Plants: A Review of the Emotional and Mental Health Benefits of Plants.” Journal of Environmental Horticulture, vol. 37, no. 1, Mar. 2019.

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