How Houseplants Can Help You Fight the Winter Blues

With shorter days, longer nights, and the cold keeping you inside, indoor gardening can bring mood-boosting nature into your space.

As fall transitions into winter and leaves and temperatures drop, it’s not really surprising that your mood can follow. With shorter days, a lack of sunlight, and the inability to spend a lot of time outdoors (depending on where you live), many people struggle with feeling down or not like their normal selves during this time of year.

This phenomenon is known as seasonal affective disorder (aka SAD), and it can last about four to five months. SAD has been part of the mental health discourse for years now, but it has gotten even more attention since the pandemic and rise of TikTok. Bisma Anwar, a licensed mental health counselor based in New York, was doing panels about the disorder before COVID-19, but she’s noticed an uptick in conversations around SAD.

Room with snake plants and hanging monstera

Better Homes & Gardens

Symptoms to watch for include a change to your sleep schedule, difficulty with appetite, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and an increase in feelings of helplessness, Anwar says.

Whether you experience SAD fully or just get a bit of the winter blues every year, it’s never a bad idea to indulge in some self care when you’re feeling low. If you’re looking for an easy and affordable way to get solace, try taking on a few plants or starting an indoor garden: Research suggests that greenery can boost our mood and have other positive effects.

In 2019, Melinda Knuth, an assistant professor at North Carolina State in the horticulture department, and one of her colleagues published an updated review summarizing the different effects plants have on people. They combed through existing studies from the last 10 years on emotional and mental health benefits—which totaled to about 2,500 articles and nine months of work. 

“We talked about the fact that plants can help you reduce the stress hormone cortisol, just by being around plants,” Knuth says. “Not only can we have this subconscious benefit when [we’re] near them, but just simply looking at a picture of a plant can also help reduce your blood pressure and heart rate, which is incredible.”

The reasoning behind this goes back to evolution—humans have relied on plants since the beginning of time to provide nourishment, protection, and fuel, Knuth points out, and we have an innate relationship with them. So in today’s world (where we’re a little more removed from nature than we were during hunting and gathering times), caring for houseplants or gardening indoors gives us that connection. Just as walking or hiking outdoors puts us in a calmer state, that feeling translates when you bring nature inside your home. 

It’s also about self care: Taking the time to be mindful and do activities you enjoy and help you relax will almost always give you a mood boost. Even if you don’t consider yourself a plant person, taking on even one as part of your self-care routine provides benefits in a number of ways.

“There’s something innate in humans to take care of something, and that can be a very grounding experience, a very mindful experience, and it can help you just have a sense of routine,” Anwar says. “You look outside, it's very barren now [in the wintertime]. The trees and everything, the leaves, everything’s gone. But if you have indoor plants, then you’re still engaging with that colorful nature and the green and everything, and there’s a very pleasant feeling that really comes up for us.”

Self care can also serve as a form of distraction, Anwar explains, which helps you turn your mind away from negative thoughts or feelings. In a video about SAD on her TikTok, therappuccino, she gives a personal example of how she uses her love for coffee in this way—trying new flavors, making cappuccinos, and just generally engaging more with her daily coffee ritual. She also recommends journaling and meditation, even if it’s for five minutes a day, to let yourself be in the moment.

If you’ve never owned a real plant or are stressed about the caring process, start off with one or two—you can always add more to your collection once you get into a routine. Knuth suggests getting pothos or snake plants because they can survive in low-light environments. If you have a good amount of natural light in your home, incorporate plants with flowers, like orchids, bromeliads, petunias, or amaryllis—they can have an even greater effect on your mental health. Even fake plants have an impact. 

“It's almost like a return to nature,” Knuth says. “In my opinion, that's where we should be in terms of our health, because we place ourselves in this artificial environment. This is why we’re seeing these subconscious health effects—we don't even have to know that they're happening. Just [plants] being around can help us.”

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