Plants Aren’t Just a Hobby — They’re Also Therapy

When I moved across the country for my first full-time job, I was rocked. Los Angeles was a whole other world. For my Georgia roots, the change of scenery (from canopies of trees to exactly one tree-like shrub at the end of my street) was one of many culture shocks. I felt isolated, adding to the pre-existing levels of depression and anxiety I already felt accompanying my move. For a few months, I spent the entire weekend moving from my couch to my bed — sometimes with a 7/11 pizza and bottle of Jameson in my hand — until I agreed to run Sunday errands with two of my roommates.

Ally and Gabriella, who had lived in Los Angeles for years, created their own safety net oasis in the middle of Silver Lake, starting with a plant nursery off of Sunset Boulevard. Whether I knew it or not, this experience of sifting through plants and succulents changed something within me: I felt hopeful for the first time in a long time. We picked the prettiest plants we could find and started a jungle in our 227 Vendome Street home. I ended up collecting five gorgeous plants, all of which gave me a reason to get up and move around during the week and on weekends. When I moved to Atlanta, I left my roommates with the plants I had nurtured for the past year — ones that they still have.

 

In Atlanta, I hunted for the same euphoric feeling before finding solace in an Ace Hardware off North Highland Avenue. My new collection started growing, first with a golden pothos, then a monstera, then a jade plant and panda plant. Something unexpected happened: a friend introduced me to the world of House Plant Hobbyists​. What started as a blog (and a ​public group on Facebook​) turned into a source of information and support for people all over the world, finding similar comfort in the community and routine of houseplants. I learned scientific names, the value of variegated plants and that people use houseplants to cope with a variety of traumas, grievances and mental illnesses. While I had used houseplants to help with my daily anxiety and depressive episodes, others bought string of pearls instead of self-medicating with drugs or propagated philodendron to cope with the deaths of loved ones. Although the examples were different in each case, there is a similar thread within each story: Houseplants offered a natural source of happiness and an organic, therapeutic routine to shake the hold of mental illnesses.

This observation is not new; the trend of Millennials keeping houseplants is well-documented. ​Apartment Therapy​ highlights houses with aesthetically pleasing greenery, ​The New Yorker​ details the new-age plant-person relationship, and The New York Times has articles featuring ​plant-swapping social groups​, plant influencers​ and ​the wild price ranges​ for plants…all attempting to understand the seemingly universal appeal of houseplants. These pieces all outline the personal benefits of owning plants, but the medical professional jury is still out. Is there actually a correlation between houseplants and our mental health? Some say yes, some say no.

Dr. Brian Wind​, Ph.D, is ​a co-chair of the American Psychological Association​ and a ​clinical executive at JourneyPure specializing in addiction treatment. According to Dr. Wind, our connection with houseplants is on a neurological level: “An environment containing plants suppresses the nervous system, which decreases blood pressure and promotes relaxation,” Wind tells SheKnows. “The smells, touch, appearance and fresh air all mimic a natural environment, which the brain responds positively to by releasing serotonin — a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and promotes feelings of well-being.”

Saba Lurie​, a licensed therapist at Take Root Therapy and board-certified art therapist, reinforces Dr. Wind’s point while citing other lifestyle benefits: “​For those experiencing depression or anxiety, taking care of something like a houseplant can provide a brief break from symptoms while functioning as a small, manageable task to complete. For folks whose depression makes everyday tasks seem daunting, even watering a plant can improve self-esteem and make larger tasks seem less overwhelming.”

According to a few medical professionals, the nurturing that goes into taking care of houseplants reaps a positive benefit because of an innate connection with other living things. Although not scientifically proven, this phenomena is widely studied under the name of ​Biophilia​. In short, biophilia is the hypothesis that nurturing another living being or thing provides people with a sense of purpose and well-being.

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Image: Myimagine/Shutterstock.

This extends into the professional environment too. Deborah Choi is the founder of horticure, a company that promotes plants and plant care. In her experience, plants provide an escape from the anxiety of day-to-day working life, particularly in the fields of technology and innovation.

“You tend to see many start-up offices filled with plants, partly to help keep their employees feeling good and staying productive,” Choi told SheKnows. “One of our first B2B clients for horticure was a large Berlin-based startup that was looking to bring about $1,700 worth of plants into their new office space–a purchase signed off by their ‘Happiness Manager’.”

Although the likelihood of companies everywhere instituting Happiness Managers is very slim, there are many ​studies that show people are more relaxed in natural, tranquil environments as opposed to urban areas. As much, it comes as no surprise that implementing some nature into your private space can make you feel more relaxed.

When it comes to anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses, owning plants (like any self-motivated coping mechanism) will never be a substitute for actual therapy or treatment but it can provide a simple, green way to create and nurture a feeling of fulfillment. Minding your mental health is a difficult and challenging journey — but for those looking for a little reprieve, cultivating a green thumb isn’t a bad option.

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