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Soil Versus Sadness

Article by Volunteer Anna Potratz

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and in honor of that, we’re going to talk about how soil impacts our emotions! The idea of “healing environments” is not a new one—from Victorian seaside retreats to Japanese forest baths, humans have recognized the impact nature has on our psychology, even if scientific understanding has only come recently. 


Soil’s profound emotional effect on us is mainly rooted in its scent, as explored in-depth in this 2017 study. The researchers found that exposure to soil with a scent from a local, diverse forest lowered subjects’ heart rate and stabilized their moods, while soil without scent had no impact on them. Its characteristic earthy smell mainly comes from the top “O” layer, made of decomposing leaves and microbial activity, and it is this layer that seemed to have this powerful, aromatherapeutic impact in the study.  

Chemical composition, heavy metal exposure, and soil pathogens do present dangers to our physical and mental health. Exposure to these risks is most commonly seen in areas near manufacturing plants, sewage treatment facilities, and other hazardous developments. Luckily, there are plenty of community spaces that have healthy soil for all to enjoy, such as gardens, parks, nature reserves, and hiking trails. To find spaces near you, try, the San Diego Community Garden Network, or your city’s Parks and Recreation website. 

Interacting with soil especially has observed benefits for those with ADHD, depression, or anxiety; combining the tactile satisfaction of working with dirt and beneficial microbes such as mycobacterium vaccae, which has been studied both for its anti-inflammatory properties and improving stress responses in humans. 

If you want to experience the emotional benefits of working with healthy, living soil first-hand, consider joining us for one of our volunteer events harvesting compost! 

Getting outside is great for your emotional and physical well-being, but if you are struggling with mental health issues, it is not a substitute for professional help and support.