Clinically reviewed by Dr. Chris Mosunic, PhD, RD, CDCES, MBA

How to stress check your environment in 5 easy steps

By Kells McPhillips

If you took out a piece of paper and listed your top three stressors right now, you might come up with something like 1. Work, 2. The News, 3. Finances. Many of us grapple with these standard (but still challenging) sources of mental pressure, but it’s possible that your environment is also exacerbating your stress levels. And maybe you’re not even noticing it. 

The state of the environment where you live, work, and relax impacts your mental well-being. Research suggests that your backdrop affects your health, relationships, and everything in between. Whether you’re answering emails at home, enjoying some couch time on a Saturday afternoon, or entertaining guests, everything surrounding you informs your mood on a conscious and subconscious level. It pays dividends to learn which of your surroundings are keeping you from feeling fully present in your space—and what things you could consider changing to totally uplift the vibe.

Below, Manhattan-based licensed psychologist Anne Josephson, Psy.D, and professional organizer Jacqui Knapp, explain how your environment affects your mental health. Plus, they offer a five-step stress check to apply to any setting you may find yourself in. 

How to create a calming space in just 5 steps 

Step 1: Check the lights

Why It Matters: If you’ve ever worked in an office with fluorescent lighting, you may already know that lighting matters. (Say it again for the corporate overlords in the back!)  Working in a space that is too dark can make it challenging for us to see what we need to do and can also make it hard for our bodies to distinguish day from night,” says Josephson. “Conversely, too much light can make it feel like we are in an operating room and can expose every ounce of dust in our space, which can also be distracting and increase our stress.” 

As seasons shift and days grow shorter, the light outside your window also matters. “In the winter, some people find that their mood is very impacted by the lack of natural light. Some may even notice such a profound enough change to warrant a diagnosis of Depression with a Seasonal Pattern or Seasonal Affective Disorder,” says Josephson.

What to Change: Okay, okay, so you can’t exactly control the lighting in every room you enter. (Imagine!) However, if you’re planning to spend an extensive amount of time in a poorly-lit or overly-lit environment, Josephson recommends prioritizing a midday walk to expose your body to a little bit of natural light to boost your mood and increase your productivity.

Step 2: Listen up 

Why It Matters: “Loud noises can be distracting and, depending on your location, anxiety provoking. Some individuals are particularly triggered by sounds, and it can make it very challenging for them to focus,” says Josephson. In other words, that loud music your coworker is playing, or the construction in the building next door isn’t doing your mental health any favors.

What to Change: Try to customize your soundscape as much as possible. Josephson recommends listening to calming music—whether that means soft piano or your favorite jams.

Step 3: Spot the clutter

Why It Matters: It’s no secret that clutter doesn’t help cultivate a peaceful mind. “​​The organization of your space causes stress because being unable to find something you need can delay your work and increase the pressure to complete the task,” explains Josephson. “Additionally, having too many things and not enough space for them can make it hard to have a clean space to work.”

What to Change: Knapp recommends looking around your space and asking yourself: Does every last thing have a home? “If there isn’t a ‘home,’ that’s when we create one. This means no piles on the floor! I’m a lover of easy assembly shelving units. There are so many options and sizes available,” she says. She recommends setting aside time once  a week to return everything back to its humble abode. That way, you don’t spend the workweek looking at a pile of cords in the corner while you’re trying to pay attention to your to-do list.

Step 4: Mind the thermostat

Why It Matters: Research suggests that higher temperatures may sometimes make us more aggressive or prone to angry thoughts.“The same can be true inside of a home. People in extreme temperatures inside a home might find themselves more vulnerable to big emotions. Knowing what temperature is best for you is important.” 

What to Change: If the thermostat is in your control, try keeping it at a comfortable temperature that allows you to work without sweating or layering a pile of blankets on top of you. If you can’t control the chill or excessive heat, come prepared to feel comfortable. Carry a mini-fan with you, or wear layers so you’re not shivering. 

Step 5: Seek out the green 

Why It Matters: If you work in a corporate setting with no windows, you may go long stretches of time without seeing mother nature—and that can be stressful. 

What to Change:  The human mind loves to look at nature, so the more green you can add to your environment, the better. Position your workspace next to a window or add a plant (or tree) to your space if you can. “I love a tall luscious plant,” says Knapp. “You can never go wrong with plants. If there isn’t sufficient light, don’t worry: the fake ones are so amazing these days,” she says.

Bonus step: add things you love 

If you look around at the room you’re sitting in right now, what do you see? A painting you love? A rug that feels amazing under your feet? A photograph from a fantastic trip you took?  According to Knapp, these little details can really make a space feel like your space, and there’s nothing more calming than that. While she recommends sticking with a neutral palette in the bedroom, she loves incorporating artwork and plenty of texture in other rooms. ”I incorporate wood and natural fibers into the mix. A delicious wool area rug to pull the space together,” she says. 

Bottom line? You should love the things in your space.

Calm Health is a mental health wellness product. Calm Health is not intended to diagnose or treat depression, anxiety, or any other disease or condition. Calm Health is not a substitute for care by a physician or other health care provider. Any questions that you may have regarding the diagnosis, care, or treatment of a medical condition should be directed to your physician or health care provider.

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Our programs are created by licensed psychologists, and you can explore them at your own pace, in any order you like.

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