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 theaters. 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 organizers and environmental psychologists believe the spaces we live in are as inextricably linked to our neurological well-being as sleep, diet and exercise.
“Homes have served the same purpose since the beginning of time,” said Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist who runs the consulting firm Design With Science. “We’ve always had the need for some sort of retreat or sanctuary.” Given what some are calling an anxiety epidemic — with nearly one-fifth of Americans reporting a stress-related disorder — 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,” said 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 program 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 autobiography,” or our personal history of place. “It’s easy for magazines to say ‘this pattern is in’ or ‘this color is calming,’ ” she said. “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 is glare, which can cause eyestrain and sensitivity, especially for those with anxiety disorders or chronic migraines. Sheer or anti-glare blinds help filter sunlight and are especially helpful in rooms where you use a computer.
Once the sun goes down, do what you can to achieve full darkness, especially if you live in a city. Dak Kopec, who has written several books on the psychology of design, says streetlight glare and bright alarm clocks can contribute to insomnia. That’s not good, because disrupting sleep can throw off our serotonin levels, which in turn interrupts mood regulation, he says. Invest in room-darkening curtains or blinds in your bedroom. He adds: “Automated shades are best because you can set them to open and close at certain times.”
When it comes to artificial light, most LED lightbulbs deliver sharp, bluish hues (which tend to keep us up), so it might be worth replacing them with smart bulbs such as the Hue line from Philips, which can be wirelessly adjusted from most smart-home systems. If that feels too involved, Augustin says any home lightbulb labeled “warm and white” will do.
Keep the walls muted and bright: Paint is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to transform a space, so if you’re eager to make changes, start there. “Research suggests that we feel cooler in cooler-toned rooms and warmer in warmer-toned rooms, regardless of the actual temperature, so this is one way to steer a space to your comfort zone,” Israel said. Mine your memory for colors that have sentimental value, and steer clear of shades that trigger negative emotional responses. “The colors 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 flat paint,” Kopec said. He favors Benjamin Moore’s Eco Spec WB Silver because it’s low-odor and zero VOC, which is good for people prone to headaches. “It’s also antimicrobial and antifungal which helps with people with asthma and severe allergies.”
Choose patterns wisely: Shoot for a balance of color, 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 said, “so your best bet is to aim for moderate visual complexity.” Limit yourself to one or two colors and patterns and casually repeat them throughout the space, using accessories such as pillows or vases to tie the room together. For a visual reference, Augustin points to homes by Frank Lloyd Wright: “His shapes, colors and textures always feel quietly interconnected, like in nature.”
Embrace curves: Many environmental psychology experts say that sharp, right angles are more stimulating to the brain than round shapes or ovals, and that having too many rectilinear forms in a room can stress us out. “A room that’s entirely rectilinear, that’s like a horror movie,” Augustin said. “It’s too much activity.” Kopec agrees: “Organic shapes tend to feel soothing,” like the coil in wood grain.
Consider scent and sound: Studies have shown lavender is calming, but environmental psychologists also recommend finding scents you personally respond to, perhaps one reminiscent of a Redwood forest vacation, nights by a bonfire or even baked cookies. Certain sounds can be soothing, too. Israel feels most peaceful on the screened-in porch overlooking her garden, which has a small waterfall feature. “I have a very modest house, we’re not talking about Fallingwater here, but hearing the waterfall is a magical sensory experience,” she said. “And don’t forget music, especially New Age. It may not be everybody’s thing but it’s been proven to chill us out.”
De-clutter: Recent studies show a link between disorderly living spaces and stress, procrastination and life dissatisfaction, suggesting Marie Kondo is onto something. And the dissatisfaction can snowball. “The bigger the pile, the more you procrastinate, the more stressful it becomes,” says Stacy Thomes, a professional organizer in Calabasas, Calif. “Anxiety, ultimately, is about a loss of control, so I tell my clients: ‘You’re giving your stuff the control. You need to get control over your stuff.’ ” Thomes recommends going room to room and setting up systems, whether it’s a designated spot in the entryway where you can drop your bags or labeled containers inside your refrigerator to keep grocery runs tight. “A little order goes a long way,” she said.
Enhance your outdoor space: “Humans have a mind-body connection to nature,” Rickard-Brideau said. It can be healing: She cited 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 said. If your patio, balcony or backyard 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 certainly 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,” he added. Start with low-maintenance varieties such as aloe, ivy and jade plants. If you’re a more seasoned plant owner, Augustin recommends large, leafy green 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 bit under the weight of the leaves.”
Rock it out: For clients who need to de-stress, Israel recommends rocking chairs. “Everyone's born in a womb where they’re rocked back and forth,” she said. “These chairs are designed to calm us down.” Airports all over the country are littered with the classic piece, which Israel says is not a coincidence: “I call it a calming intervention.”
Buerger is a music and lifestyle writer based in New York.
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