The Benefits of Living With Plants
Psychologist and author of the recently-released book Plant Therapy Dr Katie Cooper shares the remarkable benefits she has experienced by inviting plants into her life.
by Dr Katie Cooper
There are so many remarkable benefits that we can all experience by living our lives closer to plants, and for me, understanding why it is that we respond to plants makes these benefits feel even more pertinent, and makes me re-think my relationship with nature for the better.
Plenty of scientific evidence supports the premise that plants improve the air quality of the environment around us, and there is also evidence that shows us that indoor greenery can improve our productivity and creativity, but what about beyond this? How can we benefit from bringing plants into our home? Can it go as far as supporting and promoting our mental health?
Biology dictates that we are physiologically hardwired to live our lives outside in the wild, not as we do in reality, spending 90% of our time indoors at work or home. Our body, mind and emotions (so, all of us!) take cues from the environment around us, with our evolutionary heritage dictating these cues. For instance, environmental cues such as the particular form or colour of a plant would historically tell us several things as hunter-gatherers: whether we were in a resourceful and plentiful environment, suitable for us to inhabitat, safe from predators etc. The sight of a climbable tree, lush green foliage or sickening yellow weeds would send a cue (and still does) to our fight or flight response system, telling us whether we can relax or if we should be on guard.
Given that we are innately attuned to the landscape and the world around us, this means that there are many benefits to be had from surrounding ourselves with plants and nature. As a psychologist, what I find particularly interesting about these benefits is that they are remarkably similar to those that we gain from having a strong bond with an attuned caregiver.
According to attachment theorists, attuned caregiving is the key to the successful development of a well-adapted individual. When we are born we are unable to decipher and interpret the overload of sensations, facts and impressions of our world, neither do we have the ability to regulate our own physiological systems, and so we depend on our parents to be attuned caregivers. Put rather crudely, the role of the mother is to be a container for all that does not make sense to her child, and she is required to process this jumble of information, respond to it and feed it back to her infant in a form they can make sense of.
It is through this experience of what psychologists call ‘containment’ that the infant comes to develop their own internal resources and physiological rhythms, which will allow them to manage and navigate their world. Quite terrifyingly (and I say this as a mother!), the mother’s effectiveness will have a strong influence on her child’s development, for better or worse, and how well they learn to control their emotions and cope with stressful situations in later life.
So, what has all this got to do with plants? Well, in much the same way that the experience of having an attuned caregiver is a formative experience for us, so too can being in an attuned natural environment. For instance, a natural environment that is giving off the right environmental cues in terms of form, diversity and colour can influence our physiological responses, lowering our blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels, and even improving our immunity. In addition, much like an attuned caregiver conveys the feeling of safety and security that allows us to build our internal resources, aspects of the natural world can provide psychological reinforcement too.The fascination nature evokes in us mimics the parental qualities of being engaging and responsive yet non-intrusive. And, just as our parents do, nature gives us the sense of being part of something beyond ourselves, a bigger system that helps us to make sense of everything.
By now you might be thinking I’ve finally lost it… But let’s be clear, I am not for a minute suggesting that plants could ever be a substitute for human parents. Humans are incredibly complicated creatures – we are a messy bundle of cognition, emotion and biology – and consequently our needs are far from simple. We know how vital attuned caregiving is for our development and wellbeing, and how destructive its absence can be to our mental health, so why not go one step further and recognise how damaging it is likely to be for our mental health to have a disrupted bond with nature, as so many of us do in the world today?
The good news, science shows us that any interaction with nature in your day is likely to improve your sense of wellbeing. With so many of us leading urbanised and technology-dominated lives, what is the easiest way for us to fulfil an intention to connect to nature on a daily basis? Of course, we could all resolve to get outside more and carve out time in our day to spend amongst nature, whether that be a leafy walk in a local park, or digging the garden. Unfortunately, however well-meaning that intention is, the likelihood of this becoming a staple part of an everyday routine would be unlikely for most, as it can succumb to too many variables, a lack (or perceived lack) of time, weather, motivation etc. This is where introducing plants into your home comes into play, for this action circumvents these variables while allowing you to exist alongside nature every day with minimum effort.
Through reading the scientific literature available in this field, we can see clearly the benefits. Throughout my book Plant Therapy I have tried to contextualise humans as much more than ‘modern man living in a modern world’. Our evolutionary history dictates that, and if we don’t widen our vision of the world and ourselves to accommodate that, then undoubtedly aspects of ourselves (ie, our mental health) and the wider world will suffer.
One of the biggest barriers we face in improving the state of the world’s collective mental health is establishing ourselves as closer to nature again. This means moving away from the more cognitive distinction that we have come to live by, which views ourselves as separate and distinct from nature and the world around us. Instead, we must shift to a more inclusive understanding of ourselves in a consistent and necessary relationship with the world around us, and understand that this relationship likely has formative implications for us.