A growing number of architects, designers, professional organisers and environmental psychologists believe the spaces we live in are as inextricably linked to our neurological well-being as sleep, diet and exercise. “Given what some are calling an anxiety epidemic — with several people reporting a stress-related disorder, the need for a safe and calming place is important. If you are looking for 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 is 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, Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist , says any home lightbulb labelled “warm and white” will do.
Keep walls muted, bright
Paint is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to transform a space, so if you are 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,” Tobby Israel, an environmental psychologist, 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 says.
As for finish, “Glossy paint is generally more stimulating than flat paint,” Kopec says.
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 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, colours and textures always feel quietly interconnected, like in nature.”
Many environmental psychology experts say 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 says. “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 says. “And don’t forget music, especially New Age. It may not be everybody’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. “The bigger the pile, the more you procrastinate, the more stressful it becomes,” says Stacy Thomes, a professional organiser 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 labelled containers inside your refrigerator to keep grocery runs tight. “A little order goes a long way,” she says.
Enhance your outdoor space
“Humans have a mind-body connection to nature,” Rickard-Brideau says. 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 says.
If your patio, balcony or backyard goes virtually unused, ask yourself why. If it is 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.”
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 adds.
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. These chairs are designed to calm us down.”
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.
- Adapted from the Washington post