Impacts of Plants on Mental Wellness
by Anna Melkumyan
If you’ve visited Blooming Minds Therapy, you’ve probably noticed several hundred plants scattered around our practice. We house a variety of foliage plants in each space not only for aesthetic value but to promote the positive impacts of plants (and plant care) on mental wellness. I often utilize plant metaphors when treating my clients because there is a high correlation between the needs of plants and those of humans.
In 2020, Blooming Minds Therapy underwent a major expansion of its practice and the construction of its space, during the height of pandemic. During this time, I was also navigating a lot of changes in my personal life which contributed to an increase of my own depression and anxiety symptoms. With so much uncertainty in the world and the pressure to keep moving forward I quickly realized that my previous coping skills needed some upgrading.
Plants became my outlet because they allowed me to slow down, held me accountable to care for them while I struggled caring for myself, and provided me with stimulation to keep learning and growing my collection. I share my experience in hopes of helping others find an outlet to improve their mental wellness. Here are some lessons I’ve learned through the care of plants:
Caring for plants often times means slowing down and being present during the process of assessing their needs. If the soil is bone dry, it may take a few extra minutes to properly water and aerate the soil. During this period, you can utilize coping skills learned in therapy such as grounding yourself in the experience. If you allow yourself to focus on how the soil transforms, what it feels like to touch the soil with your fingers and acknowledge the smell you notice, you are probably less focused on your anxious thoughts. You could also focus on your own breath work as you prune away the dead foliage. Taking a deep breath in as you count to 3
and exhaling as you count to 5 can sooth the physical sensations of anxiety in the body.
Like humans, plants are very resilient and can be forgiving if proper adjustments to their environment are made. I never give up on dying plants because I’ve learned the art of propagation. This means that you can create a new plant by cutting a node off the mother plant and placing it in water to root over time. Similarly, we can make changes to improve the quality of our lives. This could mean improving our sleep hygiene, spending more time with our supports, and adding more movement to our day. Sometimes plants cannot simply be propagated because all the foliage is damaged or dead. But odds are the root system beneath the surface is still viable and can produce new growth. I’ve learned that a clear plastic cup placed over the soil can create a greenhouse effect to help the plant grow back. Similarly, we sometimes have to make more drastic decisions to ensure survival and growth. This could mean ending an unhealthy relationship, changing jobs, or starting a new medication to manage mental health symptoms.
When we plant seeds or start a new habit, we don’t see results right away. Which means that we have to have faith in the importance of routine and consistency to see results. Educating yourself on how to care for each plant, when to water it, recognizing the type of light it needs, how often to fertilize it and how much humidity to add, increases the chances of new growth. The satisfaction of seeing a plant sprouting new foliage often increases serotonin levels and creates a positive reinforcement cycle. But being consistent with a new routine can be challenging especially if you are struggling with a mental health illness. It helps to monitor progress by journaling, attending weekly therapy, and reflecting on how the changes you’ve been making are impacting your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Holding yourself accountable with a tracking system, the support of trusted friends or family, and adding one new habit at a time can be beneficial.
Being compassionate is key when caring for plants and yourself. I’ve killed many plants over the years and learned a lot of lessons along the way. I’ve accepted that each plant goes through its own lifespan. No matter what I do to encourage it to thrive year round, it will eventually hibernate for a season or possibly die completely. Sometimes plants become sick with mites or fungal infections and require treatment I wasn’t anticipating. I’ve had to course correct by isolating, researching, and treating before returning to the original routine.
Similarly, a lot of unexpected things occur each day which can create a sense of helpless. Our society is consistently going through a new crisis, we are all bombarded with a lot of information and no time to process the things happening outside of our control. Being self-compassionate and recognizing that we all have limitation can be a helpful mindset to adopt. Being patient with yourself and recognizing that you are doing the best you can with the resources you have available can help quiet the negative cognition that is associated with depression. We all require time to rest and recharge before we are able to thrive again.
Lastly, let’s look into the research of points I have shared. Lee MS, Lee J, Park BJ, Miyazaki Y (2015) confirm through their research that “active interaction with indoor plants can reduce physiological and psychological stress compared with mental work. This is accomplished through suppression of sympathetic nervous system activity and diastolic blood pressure and promotion of comfortable, soothed, and natural feelings.” Additionally, there is a lot of research confirming positive impacts of mindfulness on mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and chronic pain. Goldin et al. (2016) research shows that use of mindfulness interventions is better for reducing and managing anxiety symptoms compared to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Overall, plant care can be a powerful experience allowing space to implement mindfulness techniques and creating a calming oasis which can promote mental wellness. It can be incorporated into a weekly routine, increase serotonin levels and help engage in a community with other plant enthusiasts.
Goldin PR, Morrison A, Jazaieri H, Brozovich F, Heimberg R, Gross JJ. 2016. Group CBT versus MBSR for social anxiety disorder: a randomized controlled trial. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 84(5):427–37 Lee MS, Lee J, Park BJ, Miyazaki Y. Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: a randomized crossover study. J Physiol Anthropol. 2015 Apr 28;34(1):21. doi: 10.1186/s40101-015-0060-8. PMID: 25928639; PMCID: PMC4419447.