Plants and nature can improve your mental health

Sept. 26, 2022 — Miriam Geiger, a 30-year-old legal affairs editor from Massachusetts, feels she has a connection with plants, whether they’re houseplants she grows in her living room or outdoor plants and herbs in her garden.

“I’ve always tried to grow plants wherever I’ve lived, and so did my parents,” she says. “My mother was a gardener and landscaper and my father took us on hikes, so I grew up with a real connection to nature. We grew herbs and other plants and in fact some of the plants I keep now are ones I propagated from cuttings from my grandmother’s collection when she passed away.’

Growing plants has become even more important to Geiger during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“It was especially comforting and helpful to have plants around, especially in the early days of the pandemic,” she says. Geiger was also fortunate to have access to outdoor space and to be able to garden in her small backyard as well, “so I stayed very connected to nature.”

Geiger is not alone. Research shows that sales of houseplants are booming during the pandemic and that having plants around or access to greenery outdoors improves people’s mental health.

A recent survey of 353 students, conducted over two semesters in 2020, found that most students reported serious mental health problems related to COVID-19, with high levels of depression and anxiety. But interactions with plants and nature, both indoors and outdoors, provided some benefits, which were shown by reduced depression, anxiety and stress scores on surveys completed by the students.

Why are plants useful?

Kathryn Simpson, Ph.D., assistant professor of sustainable and urban horticulture at Texas Tech University and co-author of the study on college students’ mental health and connection to nature during the pandemic, says there is “a lot of research trying to determine the mechanism behind the mental health benefits of plants.”

Simpson believes that “both active and passive interactions have benefits,” and she points to a theory known as biophilia, which states that humans have an inherent need to be close to nature. “Nature appeals to us at a fundamental level,” she says.

In fact, “active interactions with plants tend to be therapeutic, and horticultural therapy is a growing field” and has been shown to improve healing time and have other mental health benefits, she says.

The physical act of working with plants can also “help with dexterity and physical health,” but simply being in nature is also “beneficial.”

One study found that actively transplanting a houseplant lowers blood pressure and suppresses the activity of the sympathetic nervous system—which is the part of the nervous system that is activated during times of stress. Other studies have found that even the presence of plants can be calming, with one theory suggesting that the positive effects caused by the presence of plants may be due to the aesthetic improvements that plants bring to the home or the beauty of nature. which can help release tension.

How do people treat plants?

A recent survey of 1,250 US adults by Trees.com found that nearly half of those surveyed reported talking to their trees and/or plants; and of those who do, a fifth say they talk to their plants every day. Nearly a quarter said they had even kissed their plants, and many considered their plants their “pets.”

During the lockdown, Geiger spent more time with his plants. “I found that I would sit with them more often, water them or care for them, not just once a week like before, but every other day or even every day.”

She also talks to her plants. “I didn’t talk to my plants like they were my ‘therapists’ or anything, but rather I would talk to them a little – like ‘Oh, you look thirsty’ if they needed water, or ‘you look sad, let’s take care of this’ if they need trimming.’

She says this is generally how she interacts with the world. She likes to get to know plants better. “When I go for a walk, if I see a plant or a flower that looks interesting, I might touch it gently to feel it. There are interesting textures and sensations in the world that a lot of people don’t notice.”

When asked why they talk to plants and trees, 65% of respondents said they believe it helps the plants grow, and 62% said they believe it helps their own mental health.

Geiger has found that her connection with plants definitely has mental health benefits, not just during the pandemic, but in general. It also gives her a sense of connection to her family through certain plants, such as those in her grandmother’s collection, and helps her become more familiar with the world.

She encourages others to get involved with plants.

“A lot of people are afraid of growing plants,” she notes. “They think, ‘Oh no, I’m going to kill them.’ I’m not good at growing things. But the real trick to having plants is to have a lot of them and practice until you know how to care for them. If a plant dies, it’s just part of nature.

So don’t deprive yourself of the benefits of plants out of fear, she advises. There are also courses you can take online or in person to learn more about plant care. Geiger herself took a course in herbs and gardening through a local foundation.

Resources to learn more about how to grow indoor and outdoor plants are below.

American Horticultural Society

https://ahsgardening.org

Royal Horticultural Society

https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice

https://www.rhs.org.uk/plants/types/houseplants/growing-guide

University of Georgia Extension

Growing indoor plants with success

https://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.html?number=B1318

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