The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Planting the Seeds of Recovery: Horticultural Therapy for Eating Disorders

Occupational therapists focus on enabling people to participate in meaningful and purposeful activities of daily life.

When a person struggles with an eating disorder (ED), prior life interests and activities of enjoyment are gradually replaced by activities devoted to weight loss and an increasing focus on the thin body ideal.  Individuals may discover that engagement in many occupations, including self-care, socializing, participating in leisure activities, or attending work and school become increasingly difficult.  It is the goal of occupational therapists to assist patients in reengaging in these valued roles and to help them reestablish balance in life through a variety of modalities. One of the many ways in which occupational therapists at The Center for Eating Disorders help to do this is through horticultural therapy groups.

Therapeutic horticulture is defined as “a process that uses plants and plant-related activities through which participants strive to improve their well-being” (American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA), 2007).   Therapeutic horticulture is one of a variety of occupational therapy groups offered at The Center in addition to CBT, family therapy, DBT, art therapy, nutritional counseling and other traditional evidence-based treatments. Occupational therapists at The Center for Eating Disorders provide adult and adolescent patients with a unique opportunity to engage in therapeutic horticulture on a weekly basis. This horticulture group was developed for its therapeutic value in assisting patients with EDs to increase socialization, improve self-esteem and build competence through working with tangible objects and results (Myers, 1998).  Current literature indicates that horticulture has additional benefits as well, including:

  • improved concentration and attention
  • reduced stress
  • decreased anxiety
  • improved mood
  • improved social integration and interaction (AHTA, 2007)

Given that individuals with EDs often report that their eating disorder negatively impacts concentration,  anxiety, stress, mood and social relationships, the  benefits of therapeutic horticulture listed above are a particularly good fit for our patients.  Overall, horticulture aims to improve well-being, increase socialization in a group setting, and assist patients in identifying life-long leisure interests.

Horticulture is now offered year-round in The Center for Eating Disorders’ inpatient and partial hospital programs.  The weekly therapeutic groups include activities such as:

  • Basic horticulture education – how to care for plants and maintain a garden
  • Planting and cultivating a variety of plants including herbs, vegetables, and flowers
  • Planting and caring for houseplants
  • Indoor plant-related activities including: lavender sachets, pressed flower bookmarks, and construction of birdhouses
  • Socialization with peers in small-group setting
  • Relationship between caring for plants and oneself: connections to self-care
  • Integration with food preparation – Vegetables and herbs produced during horticulture are used during therapeutic snack preparation.  Using the food they’ve helped to grow assists patients in establishing a connection between leisure and self-care.
  • Leisure identification – if one enjoys horticulture, how might this leisure interest be continued outside of the treatment setting?

Individuals with EDs often spend a great deal of time pre-occupied with thoughts and behaviors related to their eating disorder.  Thus, an important part of the recovery process may involve finding or re-connecting to passions and interests outside of the disorder that one can devote their time and energy towards.  In addition to the innate benefits discussed above, horticulture can provide this type of positive, healthy outlet for individuals during treatment and upon their return home .

If you have questions about the horticultural therapy program at The Center for Eating Disorders, please email our Occupational Therapy Coordinator at ehaldeman@sheppardpratt.org.  You can also read more about Occupational Therapy for Patients with Eating Disorders.

Written by: Jennifer Lane, MS, OTR/L

References:

Messer Diehl, E. R. (Ed.). (2007). Definitions and positions. American Horticultural Therapy Association. http://www.ahta.org/documents/Final_HT_Position_Paper_updated_409.pdf.

Myers, M. (1998). Brief reports: empowerment and community building through a gardening project. Psychiatric Rehabiliation, 22, 181-183.

Photo courtesy of http://www.horticultural-therapy.org/

Leave a Reply