One of the biggest reasons I’ve become so heavily immersed in house plants and gardening is the positive impact it’s had on my mental health. After spending time with my plants, my mood and anxiety have an immediate change.
Light and Vitamin D
Being around plants means there’s some sun light (real or artificial) involved. Bright light naturally creates vitamin D in the body, which many people who experience depression are lacking. Light is also the trigger for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which affects up to 20% of the American population. This disorder creates mood changes when the seasons change, i.e. the “winter blues”.
Scientists believe that SAD once served an evolutionary purpose. When humans were hunter/gatherers, winter meant less food. Our ancestors’ bodies were told by the lack of light that resources would be slim, so they slowed down and moved less to conserve energy.
Before I had houseplants, another reason winter meant depression for me was seeing my outdoor plants die or go dormant. Now that my house has become a jungle, I can feel the change it has on my mood. I can continue gardening – one of the most therapeutic activities I’ve found – during the months that my depression is at its worst.
A Sense of Hope and Mindfulness
Many people suffering from mental illness/disorders experience both a feeling of hopelessness and a lack of being in the moment. Getting a new plant means having some sense of hope that the plant will continue growing. Something easy to care for, like a succulent, lets you watch something flourish and thrive during what might be a dark time for you. It’s also not an overwhelming commitment.
If you’re not familiar with mindfulness, it’s a form of meditative practice that “means to return to the present moment.” When I’m caring for my plants, I notice every new leaf or stem that’s starting to grow and any movement or subtle change in color. Paying attention to these things bring me into the moment in a way that few other things do. Stepping away from your computer screen or phone and spending time with nature is one of the best ways to clear your mind.
We often hear about air pollution outside, but how much do we think about the amount of air pollution inside a modern building? Many of the synthetic materials (carpets, furnishings, paint, etc.) we fill our homes with are full of chemicals that are released into the air. This combined with a lack of air flow in smaller rooms can have a negative effect on our mental and physical health.
In 1989, NASA released their findings that plants can absorb toxins from the air. This includes things as harmful as cigarette smoke and even radon! Breathing cleaner air improves sleep quality, concentration, physical health, and reduces fatigue. Making improvements to those things will certainly also improve your mental health. For myself, breathing cleaner air also means being able to take fuller breaths. This is super helpful for my anxiety and panic attacks!
Nurturing and Purpose
Along with feeling hopeless, sometimes mental health issues can make us feel like we’re lacking a purpose. This can happen for so many reasons – experiencing loss, having a job you don’t like, or just chemicals in your brain. Having something to nurture can help us feel like we’re needed. After all, if you weren’t taking care of them, your plants wouldn’t be alive!
Getting a puppy can have this same effect, but that’s definitely not an option for everyone. Plants are a low cost, non-time consuming, and accessible option for anyone who needs to feel needed. If you want something to take care of, but don’t have the time or energy to look after it every day, succulents, cacti, and tons of other plants are very low maintenance. On the other hand, if you want something you can be constantly parenting, look into tropical plants like Marantas or the Persian Shield that need high humidity and special conditions.
A Healthy Distraction
On the other side of mindfulness, sometimes we do need a distraction. Life can get hard with anything from a bad breakup, to grieving a loved one, to watching the news too much. Many people deal with these experiences through escapism, which can also become addiction. Rather than trying to distract yourself from the rough times with food, alcohol, drugs, or any other self destructive behaviors, try healthy distractions. Having a hobby, such as plants and gardening, to immerse yourself in is a great way to get a break from reality. Rearrange your plants, get some cute new planters, try propagating, or do some research on how to care for plants you have or want!