We talk a lot about how to deal with anxiety, but all too rarely look for antidotes close at hand: our homes.
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 a 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.”
If you’re looking for small ways to feel more peaceful, here are 10 research-backed steps worth trying at home:
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. Streetlights and bright alarm clocks can contribute to insomnia, which can throw off our serotonin levels, which in turn interrupts mood regulation. Invest in room-darkening curtains or blinds in your bedroom.
Keep the walls muted and bright: “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,” said Toby Israel, a design psychologist. 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.”
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.
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. Organic shapes tend to feel soothing, like the coil in wood grain.
Consider scent and sound: 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.
Declutter: Recent studies show a link between disorderly living spaces and stress, procrastination and life dissatisfaction. And that dissatisfaction can snowball. “The bigger the pile, the more you procrastinate, the more stressful it becomes,” said Stacy Thomes, a professional organizer. “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.’ ” She recommends setting up designated spots in every room to contain your stuff.
Bring nature indoors: In addition to being natural air purifiers and stress reducers, 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 gardener, invest in some large, leafy green plants.
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.”