Plant Therapy: What Is It And What Are The Benefits

Updated September 04, 2018

For thousands of years, plants have been used around the world in numerous ways for their healing properties. Studies into the physical benefits of plants have shown that herbal remedies are better than placebos when it comes to treating physical illnesses like inflammatory bowel disease and ulcerative colitis. Plant-based natural products have also been studied for use in cancer therapy because of their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anticancer properties.

If plants can be used to heal our physical bodies in a way that's natural and involves fewer side effects than other medications and interventions, is it possible that plants can heal us mentally too?

As it turns out, the answer is yes (to an extent). There are many ways that people can use the power of plants to ease symptoms of mental illness, including anxiety and depression. In less severe cases, plant therapy can help lift us up after a stressful day or when we're in a bad mood. Plant therapy can be used as a natural alternative to other treatments in minor cases or complement other treatments. Used as a coping mechanism, plant therapy can assist with long-term success, recovery, and well-being.

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Different Types Of Plant Therapy

There are many ways that plants can be used therapeutically to improve our mental health. Choosing the right method for you depends on your interests and personality. It's possible that some of these things will work for you and not for others, and vice versa. Some of the main ways that plants can be used to help boost your mood or deal with symptoms of deeper issues like anxiety and depression are:

  • Essential oils
  • Gardening/taking care of plants
  • Spending time in nature
  • Healthy eating/diet

These things can be used individually or in a combination as part of a healthy lifestyle. You can choose to take them up on your own or do more research and seek out guidance to get the maximum benefit. For example, you can start a garden yourself and experience a lot of benefits or participate in a horticultural therapy program for additional help.

Essential Oils

According to Healthline, "Aromatherapy is the use of organic compounds to improve your mood, mental state, or health. These organic compounds are called essential oils. They're made from various plant parts, such as roots, seeds, leaves, and blossoms." Note that experts aren't completely sure how these oils work,and they don't work for everyone, but some of them can be used to help with depression (just not cure it).

Some essential oils recommended for treating symptoms of depression are:

  • Jasmine
  • Sandalwood
  • Ylang-ylang
  • Chamomile
  • Geranium

Some essential oils recommended for treating symptoms of anxiety are:

  • Rose
  • Vetiver
  • Frankincense
  • Bergamot
  • Lavender

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Essential oils can be used on their own or blended and used in different combinations for different purposes. They can also be used in many ways, depending on your needs or preferences. You can diffuse essential oils, use them in a bath, or apply them topically with a roll-on or during a message.

A few promising pilot studies have begun showing the effects of aromatherapy on mental health. One study conducted by Conrad, P. and Adams, C. (2012) suggested, "positive findings with minimal risk for the use of aromatherapy as a complementary therapy in both anxiety and depression scales with the postpartum woman." Another pilot study on aromatherapy massage by Edge, J. (2003) seemed promising with improvements in mood, anxiety, and relaxation in 6 of 8 participants.

It's important to do your research when it comes to essential oils. Certain oils aren't safe for pets or during pregnancy for example. If you're working with pure oils, you need to know how to dilute them because they can irritate the skin or have other negative side effects if you don't. Still, you want pure oils because they will give you the best results. If you buy pre-made aromatherapy products, avoid ones with artificial scents.

Gardening/Taking Care Of Plants

Gardening is a form of plant therapy that is sometimes used in the elderly care and the creation of therapeutic gardens. This form of plant therapy can be used to complement medication or talk therapy, boosting mental health outcomes.

The Horticultural Therapy Institute shares some of the best types of plants to use in therapeutic gardens (according to students and alumni):

  • Fragrant plants - rose, gardenia, lilac, lemon balm, pine
  • Edibles - fruits, vegetables, herbs
  • Seasonal annuals - pansies, tulips, hyacinth

It's important to note that just like essential oils, you should always check on the safety and toxicity of plants that you are using, especially if you have pets or plan to consume any of the things you're growing.

At its root (pun intended), gardening is a relaxing and rhythmic activity that causes many people to lose themselves in the enjoyment of it. Working in nature releases happy hormones and can help you feel more present instead of stuck in your head. Some other benefits of gardening include improved self-esteem, along with feelings of nurturing and responsibility for taking care of something. Gardening also fosters a feeling of connection to the earth and the world around you. Lacking this connection is a big reason that many people experience feelings of depression today.

Spending Time In Nature

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Staying in the house all the time or being cooped up in an office 24/7 is not natural. Humans were not meant to be in these types of manufactured settings with artificial lighting all the time, and these things can eventually have an impact on our physical and mental health. Even if you don't consider yourself an outdoorsy person, chances are occasionally; you find yourself outside enjoying the feeling of sun on your face and the wind in your hair.

If gardening isn't your thing, it's possible to get some of the same benefits just by spending time in nature. According to a study by Barton and Pretty (2010), green exercise (activity in the presence of nature) brings large benefits in mood and self-esteem, even from short durations. Evidence suggests that those effects are enhanced when this physical activity takes place near water.

Next time you're feeling down or anxious,and it's a beautiful day outside, try one of these things (even if it's just for 30 minutes) and see how you feel afterward:

  • Head to the nearest park or nature path and walk, hike, or bike
  • Do yoga or exercise outside at the beach or by a river/ another body of water
  • Find a peaceful place outside in nature, sit on a bench or lay in the grass and do nothing or read a book

If you're more of a nature lover and open tolonger exposure, grab some friends or your family and go on a weekend camping trip! Spending time in nature on a regular basis can help you feel calmer and more connected, put you in a better mood, and help you get more energized for the day ahead.

Healthy Eating/Diet

While we're on the topic of plant therapy, it only seems fair to talk about diet. One of the best and mostsimple ways that we can use plants to enhance not only our physical but also our mental health is by eating them! Paying attention to your diet and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can have a positive impact on your mood and energy.

In fact, many studies have now shown that there is a link between mental health and diet. For example, a study by Jacka, F.N., Mykletun, A., Berk, M., et al. (2011) found that "those with better quality diets were less likely to be depressed, whereas a higher intake of processed and unhealthy foods was associated with increased anxiety." Similarly, compared to omnivores people on plant-based diets have fewer symptoms of depression, stress, anxiety, and mood disturbances.

Conclusion

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When most people think of plant therapy, they probably think of essential oils, because they've become such a popular way for people to influence their mood and mental state naturally. Plus, there's a huge company by the name of Plant Therapy that sells essential oils. However, the truth is that there are several other ways that plants can be used therapeutically to enhance our mental well-being.

Some other ways that plants can be used to improve your mental health include gardening, creating and spending time in therapeutic gardens, paying attention to your diet, and simply spending time in nature. Just being around plants for a short period can have a positive impact on your mood!

Even though plants can help us support mental health and recovery, it's important to seek help for things like depression and anxiety. This might mean talking to your doctor about how you've been feeling and discussing treatment options like medication or therapy if needed. If you're having trouble finding a therapist, online services like Regain (which offers relationship and marriage counseling) are great alternatives to in-person counseling that are easy to use, secure, and affordable.

Alongside therapy and medication, plant therapy can help you deal with symptoms and self-sooth when things get tough. When you start to feel yourself getting anxious or depressed, you know that you have coping tools like essential oils, gardening, or nature to turn to if you want to regain a sense of calm and connection.


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