Last year, I learned that I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). My diagnosis didn’t exactly come as a surprise to anyone. I spent years in an abusive relationship where I was exposed to serious trauma, manipulation, rape, and terror during some of my most formative years.
Although after two years of therapy I’ve healed a lot, sometimes I still have nightmares, flashbacks, and other common PTSD symptoms. Some days, these symptoms can flare up, resulting in a serious drain on me physically and emotionally, preventing me from living the life I want.
Today is one of those days.
Some of the defense mechanisms I have built because of this experience are really helpful. For example, I gained an appreciation for logic and reason in the midst of emotion and unshakable resilience.
Before I even started therapy, though, I had been slowly cultivating another helpful coping mechanism behind the scenes, one I never knew could have such a significant impact: Houseplants.
. . .
Since getting my first own apartment 5 years ago, I have collected over 70 different plants. Pothos, Sansevieria, Pilea, bamboo, Peperomias, succulents, Swedish Ivy, ferns, Fiddle Leaf Fig, and Schefflera — my plants filled the rooms of my house, covering every windowsill and bright surface.
What started out as a hobby turned into an obsession. I dreamt of living in a jungle, with vines trailing across my walls and ceiling.
Propagating and sharing plants became my favorite form of gift-giving, and when I moved across the country bringing my plants was more important than bringing my furniture.
I realized when I received my diagnosis that caring for my plants had been an important way for me to grow and heal before I even knew what was wrong with me.
How can something as simple as houseplants help with a disease as serious and debilitating as PTSD?
1. Light Brings Joy
Plants need light to survive — and so do we. Even the hardiest of houseplants require a moderate amount of light, and most popular tropical species require bright light. Bringing plants into your home will force you to open up the curtains, turn on the lights, and get some sun.
Those who really fall in love with plants may even find themselves picking a home based on the occurrence of natural light, as I have, or increasing the light indoors with “daylight bulbs” which simulate sunlight for plants. When we improve the light situation in our homes for the sake of our plants, we are improving the space for ourselves, too.
2. Nature Can Improve Your Functioning
According to psychologist Ming Kuo, human separation from nature can have far-reaching consequences — including on our physical and psychological health. Even neighborhood crime is impacted by the amount of nature in a given development.
Houseplants help bring nature indoors. For people who live in dense urban areas with little access to nature, this may be the only greenery they get. Houseplants have been found to decrease depression and anxiety and increase concentration, creativity, and memory — simply by being around them.
According to Kuo, even looking at pictures of nature can stimulate this calming effect, moving our bodies from the sympathetic system (“fight or flight”) to the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) system.
3. Caring for Plants Requires Mindfulness
Caring for houseplants, especially a large collection of them, requires mindfulness. Taking care of plants involves keeping track of watering and fertilizing schedules, managing pruning and propagation, and treating pests and disease.
By caring for plants, we are forced to stop and think about the environment around us, especially focusing on sensory experiences. How warm is it? Is it sunny today? Does this soil feel wet or dry?
This sort of sensory-based mindfulness is shown to have benefits on physical and mental health and is a common tool used in therapy. Caring for plants will force you to be mindful — without even realizing it.
The mindfulness aspect required in day to day plant care can translate to mindfulness in other areas of your life. Horticultural therapy, which involves tending to outdoor “therapeutic gardens”, has been successfully used with veterans since World War II.
4. A Beautiful Space is Important to Healing
In her book, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, Dr. Esther Sternberg discusses how beautiful spaces can help us heal, even physically:
People living with PTSD are more likely to need to spend more time at home as many of the symptoms of PTSD, such as hypervigilance and flashbacks, can make going out in public a minefield of potential triggers. Creating a warm, beautiful, peaceful, and nature-filled sanctuary away from the dangers of the world gives our minds a place to rest and heal.
. . .
Houseplants can bring joy and happiness to everyone — even people without trauma or mental illness.
For those of us struggling to overcome our past and look for a brighter future, though, plants can do something else: provide day to day purpose, and reward us for caring.
When you have been taught by an abuser that it’s not worth caring about anyone or anything, that your efforts are worthless, and that you can never achieve anything, plants can provide living proof otherwise.
Plants will not manipulate you, abuse you, or abandon you.
Rather than gaslighting you, making you doubt your sensory experiences, and punishing you for responding to stimuli — plants will tell you it is okay to trust yourself again.
Watching a plant grow, unfurl new leaves, and (if you are lucky) even flower, is the perfect reward for the time, energy, and love you invested in them.
Plants can help you retrain your brain to find beauty and success in your efforts, teaching you that it is worth constantly pushing forward — even when anxiety and PTSD are trying to tell you otherwise.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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Photo credit: M.K. Fain