Winter isn’t easy on mental health. There’s less sunlight and shorter days, but we still live under pressure to maintain our productivity levels—social and professional—from the warmer months. This can lead to fatigue, burnout and increased depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Studies show that when you stay connected with plant life or add houseplants to your space, their presence can help soothe the winter blues and boost your mood with feel-good stimulation (Hall 2019). The short answer: yes, houseplants help with seasonal depression.
While we do have plant subscriptions to take comfort in during these winter months (or even a jungle to kick start your SAD fighting sanctuary), let's better understand why winter gets us down in the first place, and how our relationship with plants can perk us back up.
Dormant Plants, Hibernating Animals
A shift in mood is part of your body’s natural response to the cycles changing all around you. Fading sunlight, colder weather, and food scarcity marks a shift when humans, like other animals and plants, are meant to slow down and prepare for a long winter’s nap.
Did you know that your body makes more melatonin when it’s dark? It’s like nature’s way of introducing a seasonal bedtime, which is probably why it’s so hard to get out of bed on gloomy days. When daylight hours are cut shorter and shorter, and darkness rolls out like a weighted blanket over winter’s weeks and months, seasonal lethargy can easily slip into depression. We need plants as our teachers and our cheerleaders during these (literally) dark days.
Unlike migratory animals and middle-class boomers, plants cannot uproot themselves and move to Florida to escape the cold. Plants are in it for the long haul. With less light to make their food, plants reduce energy costs by slowing their growth and becoming dormant.
Deciduous plants like trees and shrubs will move water around inside of their trunks to protect their cells and drop their leaves to conserve water stores, because the leaves are where water evaporates from. That’s why in autumn, their leaves turn fiery hues, then shrivel up and fall. That’s the trees just planning ahead for winter, but making it look like Fashion Week.
Plants don’t resist the inevitable change of seasons. They work with their surroundings, adapting as needed to ensure their survival. While we can’t hibernate from work, flee to warmer climates on a whim, or shed life’s demands like crispy leaves, we can use the tools that plants give us to navigate our feelings, seeking out joy where we can find it.
What Would a Plant Do?
Plants love to be in the light. They will go searching for it from wherever they’re planted. Plant lovers know this and are quick to pull out a compass so they can find the southernmost facing windows in a room for their plants. What if we moved ourselves closer to the light, too?
Research shows that just looking outside at trees or greenery leads to improved feelings of calm and tranquility (Chang 2005). Moving your desk or reading chair to a window is vastly better than staring at the wall for hours each day. And if your plants are near the windows, it’s a bonus because the closer we can stay to them, the better we will feel.
Like our green leafy friends, humans also rely on sunlight to help us thrive. One of the most common treatments for SAD is light therapy, which uses light boxes that filter out UV light. It’s sort of like grow lights for plants, but for people when sunlight is sorely lacking.
Incorporating visits to your local botanic garden that have steamy conservatories can help satiate your need for greenery. A Korean study of people with depression found that participants who were treated with behavioral therapy in an outdoor setting like a forest or arboretum showed reduced symptoms of depression and a thirty percent better change of remission than participants who received therapy in an indoor hospital setting (Kim 2009). Of course, when temperatures are frigid and you’re avoiding leaving the house at all, it benefits to have your own collection of plants to soothe what ails.
In winter, houseplants have the upper hand—err, frond—to outdoor plants because houseplants live in controlled climates that provide stability throughout the year. No need to go bald, shedding their leaves or shuffle water supplies in their stems. If you struggle with SAD, growing your own indoor garden can be a powerful step toward positive mental health. It’s literally built-in plant therapy.
The Soothing Power of Soil
Beyond the power of plant presence, what lies in their soil may also aid in keeping depressive feelings at bay. A bacterium found in soil called Mycobacterium vaccae mirrors the neurological effect that antidepressants can have on our brains by stimulating serotonin production, leading to feelings of relaxation and happiness (Lowry 2007).
Digging in the dirt has long been believed to be soothing, but it seems to have a chemical component thanks to these antidepressant microbes that increase our levels of cytokine, a category of proteins that aid in reducing inflammation and responding to infection. Getting dirt under your nails or just inhaling the bacteria can have positive effects that last up to three weeks.
Meditate on Plant Dormancy
Winter is often wrongly categorized as a time when living beings die. What is more often happening is a purposeful state of dormancy to preserve the energy of the creature so that they can rest.
What appears to be void of life to the human eye is just a deep slumber all the way down to the cellular level. Even plants that are dried-up and seemingly lifeless, often still have a spark in them waiting to be lit by spring’s warmth.
Plants really do show us how to rest. They can’t grow radiant blooms and lush leaves 24/7 all year round like capitalism demands. They insist on going dormant entire months out of the year, so that when they return to an active state, their growth can come from a place of abundance, not resource scarcity.
Take their cue to listen to your body’s needs in times of immense flux. Honor the seasonal slump into dormancy by asking for tender patience from those around you. Only then can find a place of rest as you wait for the ground to thaw and new growth to unfurl.
Chang, Chen-Yen Chang and Ping-Kun Chen. “Human Response to Window Views and Indoor Plants in the Workplace.” American Society for Horticultural Science. 40.5(2005):1354-1359.
Hall, Charles Hall and Melinda Knuth. “An Update of the Literature Supporting the Well-Being Benefits of Plants: A Review of the Emotional and Mental Health Benefits of Plants.” Journal of Environmental Horticulture. 37.1(2019): 30–38.
Kim, Won et al. “The effect of cognitive behavior therapy-based psychotherapy applied in a forest environment on physiological changes and remission of major depressive disorder.” Psychiatry Investigation. 6.4 (2009): 245-54.
Lowry, C A et al. “Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: potential role in regulation of emotional behavior.” Neuroscience vol. 146.2 (2007): 756-72.
“Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Johns Hopkins Medicine. Internet resource.