What Role Does Physical Environment Play in Your Mental Health?

Published on: 05 Jun 2019
man waiting for the subway pulling his hair in stress

Mental health isn’t simply about what’s going on inside your head. What’s happening outside your head is important, too — from a cluttered bedroom to a poorly-lit office to the view from a window — it can all impact your well-being.

Physical environments directly impact our psychological health. It’s easy to see why: we spend a lot of time thinking about what’s around us. And all that external stimuli has an effect! Maybe the laundry hasn’t been folded in three days, and it bugs you every time you go to bed. Or your kitchen is dark and gloomy, and so cooking dinner makes you sad.

Adjusting your surroundings can dramatically improve your mental health. Just remember: everyone is different! If you’re one of those rare birds that thrives in clutter, tidying up might not help.

Solutions to Improve Your Surroundings

Here are some environments that might get you down in the dumps and some solutions to help you improve your surroundings — and your mental health.


Spring cleaning isn’t simply good for your home’s health — it’s good for your mental health, too. Don’t just declutter because Marie Kondo told you to: do it for the psychological benefits.

Researchers studying clutter have found that messy homes lead to decreased mental well-being. Among older adults, messy homes led to a significant decrease in life satisfaction. Essentially, the study found that clutter starts off as a symptom of procrastination tendencies — but soon the mess becomes a stress factor in itself.

The effect of clutter on mental health may be worse for women. A 2010 study found that wives who consider their home cluttered had higher cortisol levels during the daytime. Women who didn’t think their homes were cluttered had decreasing cortisol levels, just like most men.

The study’s lead author, University of Southern California psychology professor Darby Saxbe, told the New York Times that she suspected the rising cortisol happens because women typically spend more time on housework than men.

Crowds and loud noises

Do airports and concerts make you inherently uncomfortable? You’re not alone: studies have shown that crowded rooms and loud exterior noises elevate psychological distress.

But it’s not just tightly-packed events that affect your mental health. Crowded cities lead to higher rates of anxiety disorders and schizophrenia, and researchers have found that living in a city boosts activity in your amygdala — the part of your brain that’s associated with memory and emotional intelligence — and is affected when someone encroaches on your precious personal space.

There may be a bonus to your lit-up amygdala: researchers also speculate that activity in this area helps you remember more faces. That’s a useful skill in the big city!

Polluted air

Big cities have another drawback: smog. The connection between air pollutants and physical health is well-documented, but you may be surprised to learn about the connection between gross air and mental health, too.

While further study is needed, a review of current literature indicates it’s quite likely that polluted air leads to an increase in mental health problems. Another study found that toxins like lead and solvent can lead to disturbances in behavior — like limiting one’s ability to self-regulate or increasing aggression.

Poor light

Don’t ignore the seriousness of seasonal affective disorder the appropriately-acronymed SAD. A lack of natural light can kickstart a deep depression, making it oh-so-important to get into the sun whenever possible. And during the long winter, when there’s no sun to be seen in much of the country, consider a SAD lamp. No, it may not eliminate the seasonal blues entirely, but there is evidence that it might help.

But it’s not just winter lighting that can affect your mood. Your office lighting might put you down in the dumps, too. Poor interior lighting can lead to a range of mental disorders — think stress and anxiety — especially when paired with a high-pressure environment. Bad lighting can also make it harder to sleep at night, damaging your long-term mental health.

The ocean and parks

For many people, nothing’s more delightfully meditative than sitting on a beach staring at the ocean. Research backs up this serene experience — especially if your home has a water view. A recent New Zealand study found that looking at an ocean, lake, or even a canal provides a calming effect.

Unless you hate sand: Then maybe you prefer lying in a grassy field, staring at the sky. If you prefer your scenic landscapes green, there’s hope there, too. Anxiety and depression rates are higher in areas without parks and green spaces. If you’re living in an urban environment and worried about your mental health, consider a move: Study participants experienced immediate mental health improvements when they lived closer to nature.

Tailoring your environment to your mental health can have dramatic benefits. But if you think your surroundings are causing psychological distress or damage, don’t be afraid to talk to a licensed mental health professional. They can help pinpoint the exact causes — and work with you to develop a tailor-made solution.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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