Blue skies or gloomy weather. Hot, cold or just right. Tidy or cluttered.
We’ve all been in places or conditions that make us feel a certain way, that help us feel comfortable or contribute to our discomfort. As our environment changes, our mood changes, swinging from calm to agitated, down to upbeat. Environment affects our mood and impacts our well-being and mental health—quite a bit, it turns out.
What’s Your Environment?
Your environment is wherever you spend a lot of time—your home, your workplace, your neighborhood, your community, the great outdoors and other spaces you frequent. The places you hang out have the potential to affect your well-being, both physically and mentally. Even places where you’re just a visitor for more than a few minutes can have an impact.
What we see, hear, breathe, smell or experience impacts our mood and stress levels, which in turn affect our mental health. Factors in your environment that have the potential for impact include:
Noise. Loud neighbors or roommates, street noise, a blaring TV—all can increase levels in cortisol (the stress hormone), making us feel tense and overwhelmed. Noise can also contribute to sleep deprivation, with negative effects on mental health. Being short on sleep—even an hour short—has been found to increase the risk for psychological distress up to a year later (Sleep, Glozier, et al., 2010).
Light. Because natural light tells us when to sleep and when to wake up, it helps regulate the amount of sleep we get. A lack of natural light can affect sleep patterns. Living in dark conditions (picture a basement apartment) can negatively affect dopamine and serotonin production, contributing to depression. Too much light—such as harsh lighting, or bright lights at night—can contribute to anxiety and agitation and disrupt sleep.
Pollution. Dirty air, smoke and mold affect breathing, contributing to conditions like asthma that affect physical health, and eventually mood and mental health.
Unattractive, unpleasant spaces make it hard to do much of anything except to curl up and bide your time until you can leave. Spending a lot of time in an environment like a dark, cold house can contribute to a lack of motivation, starting a downward spiral toward a chronically low mood and feeling stuck.
Clutter. Untidy spaces, whether of your own doing or someone else’s, are in a special category. Clutter tends to make us feel anxious and overwhelmed; a clean, organized environment encourages feelings of calm. In one study, wives in households with lots of clutter had higher stress and lower moods than their husbands. Clutter also has practical effects. We have trouble finding things, contributing to a sense of chaos and anxiety. Researchers have found that clutter can impair judgment and encourage impulsive decision making, like spending money on things you can’t afford. People in a messy environment who already feel stressed or out of control may consume more unhealthy snacks, and a messy workspace can make us more susceptible to unproductive distractions like social media.
You Can’t Change the Weather
Perhaps the most ubiquitous part of our environment is the weather. You may notice the effect of an entire week of gloomy weather on your mood, but you may not realize the more disturbing effects of extreme weather. If you’re cold for weeks on end, or burning up, or constantly battling hazardous road conditions, it begins to take a toll on your sense of well-being. When climate change enters the equation, the effects on mental health can be serious.
A recent report from the American Psychological Association observes, “Over three-quarters of Americans report that they are concerned about climate change, and about 25% say they are ‘alarmed,’ nearly double the percentage who reported feeling alarm in 2017.”
“Concern about climate change coupled with worry about the future can lead to fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, exhaustion, stress and sadness, often referred to as ‘eco-anxiety’ or ‘climate anxiety.’ Studies indicate this anxiety is more prevalent among young people; it has been linked to increases in substance use and suicidal ideation.”American Psychological Association
The report points out that the aftermath of natural disasters fueled by climate change can include shock, trauma, PTSD, anxiety and depression. When stressors are extreme—loss of home or life, or separation from loved ones—mental health crises can lead to suicide ideation and risky behaviors. Relationships may be strained; weather-fueled disasters can increase incidents of violence and child abuse. Displacement caused by natural disasters can lead to loss of jobs, economic stability and personal identity, all of which have a negative effect on mental health.
Coping with Environmental Conditions
You may not be able to control the weather, buy a new home with more natural light, or find a new job in a building with better air quality, but you can change aspects of your environment to make it more pleasing.
To begin, try tidying up. Walking into a clean, organized home at the end of the day can have a tremendous effect on your frame of mind. Fixing dinner in a clean kitchen is always more appealing than having to wash dishes before you start. Pay special attention to the rooms you spend the most time in; organizing will give you relief from “clutter brain” and the motivation to tackle the rest of your home, perhaps even your workspace. Cleaning up also provides a sense of control, something that’s often missing from our lives.
Both home and workspace can benefit from a few familiar objects with pleasant associations, such as keepsakes and family pictures. Having too little to look at can be boring; you may find your mood brightening with more decoration or painting the walls a pleasing color. Too much street noise? Try a white noise machine (even a fan will do), or search YouTube or apps for a noise cover such as ocean waves, or soothing or energizing music. Filling the room with the pleasing scent of a candle, diffuser or spritz bottle can change your mood, whether you want more calm (try lavender) or energy (choose a stimulating scent like mint or lemon).
To brighten your space, buy more lighting or brighter bulbs, or place mirrors to bounce light around. Try lamps at different heights and of different intensities; a shaded lamp for reading is more effective and pleasant than a harsh overhead light. You can also replace heavy curtains with blinds that admit more sunlight and direct it where you want.
And remember the healing power of nature. Surgical patients who have access to plants and light heal faster. Get outside when you can, seeking out parks and places with trees for walks. If you don’t have a view of nature outside your window, bring nature in with potted plants or flowers or even photos of wild places.
If even after improving your environment, your low mood persists, seek help for underlying causes of anxiety, depression or other disorders. Remember that Best Day’s counselors are here to help you make positive changes so you can live your life to the fullest.
How We Can Help You?
Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling is here to help you have a better day and find a better way. We treat a wide range of psychiatric conditions for both children and adults. Contact us today, we’re ready to help:
Charlotte: (980) 867-4440• Durham: (919) 659-8686 • Fayetteville: (910) 323-1543
Fuquay-Varina: (919) 567-0684 • Greenville: (252) 375-3322 • Raleigh: (919) 670-3939
Wilmington: (910) 500-7072 • Winston-Salem: (336) 934-5556