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Plants and Trauma

Growing and Healing Together

Oct. 28, 2018, 2:48 p.m.

I recently learned I have PTSD. This probably should not have been a surprise – 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. I am still haunted by regular nightmares, flashbacks, and other common PTSD symptoms which can sometimes result in a serious drain on me physically and emotionally.

Today, for example, is one of those days.

More terrifying than the nightmares, though, was the realization that so much of who I am has been shaped out of trauma. The way I think, make friends, feel, love, and make decisions is all informed by my traumatic past. 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 an indelible resilience.

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But of course, many of the results of my trauma have not been so adaptive. Serious self doubt and hatred pop up at the most inconvenient times, constantly telling me I am as worthless as I was treated. Overcoming these negative thoughts and the resulting anxiety has been hard. Although I often feel fine these days, it’s certainly not always. These experiences are not unique to people with PTSD or even trauma, and I imagine most people can relate to some degree.

Over the years I’ve tried a variety of coping mechanisms: excessive smoking and drinking, throwing myself into big projects, therapy, or avoiding the issue altogether. Some of these worked more than others, and some made things worse. But although I did not realize it, I have been slowly cultivating what may perhaps be one of my best coping mechanisms: house plants.

Since getting my first own apartment 5 years ago, I have collected over 70 different plants. They fill the rooms of my house, covering every windowsill and surface. It was only after being diagnosed with PTSD that it occurred to me how important these plants have become to me, and how they have aided in my healing. I’m not the only one who has discovered the magical healing powers of gardening, “horticultural therapy”, which involves outdoor gardening, has even been used as a treatment for veterans with PTSD. But why do plants have such an impact?

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For one, plants need light to survive -- and so do we. Even the most hardy of houseplants require at least 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. The importance of light to treat mood disorders is well documented, and exposure to sunlight (and Vitamin D) can help alleviate depression and anxiety, both commonly experienced by people with PTSD.

Those who really fall in love with plants may even find themselves, as I have, picking a house based on the occurrence of natural light, and increasing the non-natural light indoors with daylight bulbs which help simulate sunlight for plants. I also use mirrors to help bounce light around a room to hit darker corners. There is no sulking in the dark for plant-lovers and the brighter environment will naturally help us, too.

Leafy green plants will also help with mood just by themselves, as they have been found to decrease depression and anxiety and increase concentration, creativity, and memory. The mindfulness aspect required in day to day plant care can translate to mindfulness in other areas of your life, and seems to be the driving force behind Horticultural therapy. And of course, we can't forget the air quality benefits of houseplants, which have been demonstrated by NASA. As an purely aesthetic tool, plants are used to brighten up the design of any room, making your living environment more beautiful.

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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, and peaceful sanctuary away from the dangers of the world give our minds a place to rest and heal.

There are so many documented reasons plants can help improve your mood and day to day well-being, even for people without any trauma or mental illness. But for those of us struggling to overcome our past and look for a brighter future, 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. While some people certainly have more of a natural green thumb, pretty much anyone can learn to care for at least some variety of plant. Watching a plant grow, unfurl new leafs, and (if you are lucky) even flower, is the perfect reward for the time, energy, and love you invested into them, retraining your brain to see the beauty and success in your efforts.

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