Environmental psychologists say you should understand that your home decor can add to stress
The word “anxiety” gets thrown around a lot these days, and I admit, I’ve been a little dismissive. I’d think to myself, “Don’t we all get nervous now and then? What’s the big deal?”
Then this year I experienced a series of panic attacks that knocked me right off my high horse. These were perplexing, sporadic episodes with no obvious trigger: shortness of breath right before bed, sudden dread while boarding the train, claustrophobia that hit when I entered dark movie theatres.
It was possible they were random, therapists told me, and aside from the usual remedies – less caffeine, more meditation, medication if it continues and so on – there wasn’t much to be done. Or was there?
Eager for more immediate ways to de-stress my life, I began looking around the house for environmental irritants: clutter, noise, junk food, late bills – things that weren’t exactly dire but couldn’t have been helping.
Even though the research is in its early stages, a growing number of architects, designers, professional organisers and environmental psychologists believe the spaces we live in are as inextricably linked to our neurological wellbeing as sleep, diet and exercise. “Homes have served the same purpose since the beginning of time,” says Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist.
“We’ve always had the need for some sort of retreat or sanctuary.”
Given what some are calling an anxiety epidemic, the need for a safe and calming place feels especially important. “We want to be healthier. We want to be happier. We don’t want to suffer from stress,” says Carolyn Rickard-Brideau, corporate president of the international architecture firm Little and a member of the advisory board of the WELL Building Standard, a certification programme in the US that uses medical research to gauge spaces’ health benefits.
“The spaces we live in are integral to that.” Most environmental psychologists are reluctant to be overly prescriptive; every person and family is different. Toby Israel, an early expert in the field, says our feelings about design are rooted in our “environmental autobiograph”, or our personal history of place.
“It’s easy for magazines to say ‘this pattern is in’ or ‘this colour is calming’,” she says. “It’s harder to determine whether something will actually work for you.”
That said, if you’re looking for small ways to make your home feel more peaceful, here are 10 research-backed steps worth trying.
Get light right
Exposure to natural light helps our bodies produce vitamin D, serotonin, and melatonin, and can even increase productivity – but it can also have hidden stressors.
One of these is glare, which can cause eye strain. At night, do what you can to achieve full darkness. Dak Kopec, who has written several books on the psychology of design, says streetlight glare and bright alarm clocks can contribute to insomnia.
Disrupting sleep can throw off our serotonin levels, which in turn interrupts mood regulation. Invest in room-darkening curtains or blinds in your bedroom. He adds: “Automated curtains are best because you can set them to open and close at certain times.” When it comes to artificial light, most LED light bulbs deliver sharp, bluish hues (which keep us up), so it might be worth replacing them with smart bulbs or any home light bulb labelled “warm white”.
Keep the walls muted
Paint is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to transform a space, so start there. Research suggests that we feel cooler in cooler-toned rooms and warmer in warmer-toned rooms , so this is one way to steer a space to your comfort zone,” Israel says.
Mine your memory for colours that have sentimental value, and steer clear of shades that trigger negative emotional responses. “The colours that are relaxing to look at are not very saturated and relatively bright,” Augustin said. “That’s all you need to know. Just think meadow.”
As for finish: “Glossy paint is generally more stimulating than matt paint.”
Choose patterns wisely
Shoot for a balance of colour, texture, and pattern. “Places that are stark and devoid of detail are just as unnerving to us as spaces with way too much going on,” Augustin says.
“So, your best bet is to aim for moderate visual complexity.” Limit yourself to one or two colours and patterns, using accessories such as pillows or vases to tie the room together.
Many environmental psychology experts say sharp angles are more stimulating to the brain than round shapes or ovals and that having too many rectilinear forms in a room can be stressful. “A room that’s entirely rectilinear, that’s a horror movie,” says Augustin. Kopec agrees: “Organic shapes tend to feel soothing.”
Consider scent and sound
Studies have shown lavender is calming but environmental psychologists also recommend finding scents you respond to, perhaps one reminiscent of a forest holiday, nights by a bonfire or even baking. Certain sounds can be soothing, too.
Israel feels most peaceful on the screened-in stoep overlooking her garden, which has a small waterfall feature. “I have a very modest house but hearing the waterfall is a magical sensory experience,” she says. “And don’t forget music, especially New Age. It may not be everyone’s thing but it’s been proven to chill us out.”
Recent studies show a link between disorderly living spaces and stress, procrastination and life dissatisfaction, suggesting Marie Kondo is on to something.
“The bigger the pile, the more you procrastinate, the more stressful it becomes,” says Stacy Thomes, a professional organiser. “Anxiety, ultimately, is about a loss of control, so I tell my clients: ‘You’re giving your stuff the control.’”
Thomes recommends going from room to room and setting up systems, whether it’s a designated spot in the hall where you can drop your bags or labelled containers inside your fridge for groceries.
“A little order goes a long way.”
Enhance your outdoor space
“Humans have a mind-body connection to nature,” says Rickard-Brideau. She cites a 1989 study that found that simply stepping into nature can restore your physical and mental energy.
“Being outside reduces blood pressure and helps us focus.” she says. If your patio, balcony or garden goes virtually unused, ask yourself why. If it’s simply a matter of making it functional by adding furniture or floor tiles, it could be worth the investment.
Kopec recommends spending time outdoors in the morning because “early, full-spectrum sunlight helps regulate serotonin”.
Consider a pet
Getting a pet can cause a fair amount of stress, but if you’re in the market for something drastic, it can be chemically rewarding.
Animals can cause humans to release oxytocin, also known as the neurochemical of love, and dogs in particular have been shown to reduce our stress hormones. In a time when social interactions increasingly occur online, Kopec says pets “help fill a contact niche” which lowers our blood pressure and aids in empathy.
For something a little more manageable, he points to fish and aquariums, which may reduce heart rate and lower blood pressure. Bring nature indoors In addition to being natural air purifiers and stress reducers, Kopec says plants have organic, irregular shapes that are inherently relaxing to the eye.
“And they require tending and nurturing, which gives us a sense of control.” Start with low-maintenance varieties, such as aloe, ivy and jade plants. If you’re a more seasoned plant owner, Augustin recommends large, leafy plants.
“Cactuses and plants with pointy leaves haven’t proven to be as relaxing as leafier plants, such as ficuses. You want softly rounded leaves with branches that bend a little under the weight of the leaves.”
Rock it out
For people who need to de-stress, Israel recommends rocking chairs. “Everyone’s born in a womb where they’re rocked back and forth,” she says. “These chairs are designed to calm us down.” Airports all over the US are littered with the classic piece, which Israel says is not a coincidence: “I call it a calming intervention.”
The Washington Post