How Does Your Environment Affect Your Mental Health?

Mother working from home with children

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Everything from the house, city, and the state you live in to the weather in your area, the social climate, and your work environment can affect your mental health.

These places you spend a lot of time in can have a significant impact on your well-being—both physically and mentally. 

So, it makes sense to take a closer look at how the environment affects your mental health. But with so many factors playing a substantial role, you might be wondering which ones to focus on to improve your mental health. 

Here, we take a look at the role the environment plays in your overall mental health, how to know if a change is needed and what you can do to start feeling better. 

How Environment Affects Mental Health

“Our environment is a combination of both physical factors such as where you live and the people around you both in your home but also on a wider community scale,” says Rachelle Scott, MD, medical director of psychiatry at Eden Health

As adults, we spend the majority of our time at work. That’s why Scott says the environment at work will also play a significant role in our mental health. She also points to the fact that a person's social environment including socioeconomic elements such as race and ethnicity and a lack of social support—which can have a profound influence on your ability to cope with stress—also affect your mental health. 

And finally, what we see, hear, breathe, and smell can impact mood and stress levels, which directly impact mental health.

For example, Scott says bright light can improve depression and anxiety, especially as we are in the long days of winter.

Rachelle Scott, MD

Lack of sunlight is a real concern with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and a cornerstone of treatment is increasing light. 

— Rachelle Scott, MD

Loud noises and larger crowds can be overwhelming, which increases cortisol levels and stress. Higher rates of pollution also affect mental health.

Scott points to research that shows increased rates of depression in more polluted areas. “The effect of mold, if present, in the home and higher rates of asthma as a result of increased pollutants themselves, can also excrete mental health issues.”

April Snow, LMFT, says your mental health can be impacted by anything in your environment, but the most notable include: 

  • Aesthetics: Cluttered spaces can create feelings of overwhelm and anxiety, while tidy spaces can invoke a sense of calm. To help with this, Snow says to have colors and objects in your environment that are meaningful, which can boost mood. 
  • Sensory: "The lighting, temperature, sounds, smells, and color palette of an environment are very important to how comfortable, relaxed, and safe you feel,” Snow says. For example, harsh lighting and loud noises can lead to anxiety or agitation, while dark and cold spaces can lead to feeling unmotivated—especially in the winter. 
  • People: Indirect or inconsistent communication, conflicts, or unreliable people in the environment can be very stressful to manage. However, Snow says sharing a space with someone you trust, such as a partner or spouse, roommate or friend or loved one, can create a sense of calm. 
  • Culture and Values: “It’s important for people to connect with others that share their culture and values and to be understood at a deeper level,” Snow says. Otherwise, feelings of isolation and depression can arise. 
  • Familiarity: If something in the environment, such as a difficult relationship or disorganization, reminds you of a difficult time, Snow says you may feel triggered by old feelings like anxiety. However, positive associations in the environment such as a family keepsake, photos, or familiar objects can boost mood and a sense of connection. 

For Gail Saltz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, the social environment plays a very, very big role in your mental health. “Having close, trusted, intimate others in your life is a significant positive factor for mental and physical health,” she says. 

Saltz says this is true of a healthy marriage, a good circle of friends, and other important family relationships. “Lack of relationships, leading to loneliness causes depression and anxiety, while tumultuous and disturbing relationships leads to chronic stress and lower mood and higher anxiety,” she says. 

Additionally, Saltz says relationships with people who abuse substances increase the likelihood you will abuse substances while growing up in a home with exposure to domestic violence, substance abuse, emotional or physical abuse, affect mental health detrimentally.

Choosing Your Focus

No matter the type of environment you're in, Snow says to start with the things you have control over, and can accomplish relatively easily. For example, organize your space, change the lighting, or get a sound machine to cover up the street noise at night. 

April Snow, LMFT

Creating opportunities for little wins will give you the energy to tackle bigger changes,” she says.

— April Snow, LMFT

To make the most impact, begin with the room you spend most of your time in and arrange it in a way that is functional and free of clutter. For example, if you’re a parent working from home and now find yourself supporting your children’s online schooling, then start with your home.

According to Saltz, focusing on your social surroundings, improving and growing more intimate in some relationships, being vulnerable with those you can trust to gain support and empathy while distancing yourself from truly toxic relationships that are negatively impacting mental health, can all make a substantial difference.

How Perception Impacts Mental Health

It’s easy to blame a toxic work environment, cluttered house, or rainy weather for your deteriorating mental health. But sometimes, your perception of the environment contributes just as much to how you feel. 

If you’re not in a position to change something about your environment, it’s critical that you work on reframing the beliefs you have about it. 

“Trying to find appreciation in the environment, even if it's one positive thing can help reframe your thoughts about your environment,” Scott says. To accomplish this, Scott recommends gratitude. 

“I think forming a routine or some habits to help keep your environment as decluttered as you can also help reframe and provide a sense of control in a situation where you feel like you don't have any control,” Scott says. 

Snow recommends focusing on what is working and supporting you in your current environment. She also suggests small changes to make the environment more soothing and familiar, such as organizing, adding photos, or painting. 

And finally, make sure to process any emotions or frustrations that are present through journaling, movement, or talking with a friend or therapist. “Don't let the feelings build-up,” Snow says.

How To Know If a Change Is Needed

Understanding that the environment plays a critical role in mental health is the first step. But you also need to be able to identify if a change is needed. 

According to Snow, it’s vital to notice the connections between how you're feeling and what triggers the feelings. “Then you can make small adjustments to your current environment to determine if that big change is really necessary,” she says. 

For example, if you live in a city and always feel overstimulated and anxious, Snow recommends engaging in more quiet activities at home. “If that doesn't change your mood, but notice that every time you spend a weekend outside the city, you feel relaxed, that's a sign that something needs to change,” Snow adds. 

While changing your social network or the depth of certain relationships may help, Saltz says it may not “fix” whatever is driving your mental health issue. “It may not be sufficient enough, and getting treatment may be required,” she says. 

Scott points out that picking up and moving from one environment to another permanently is not always an option for many of us. However, a temporary move from the city to the country or perhaps closer to the water, is one way to try and test how your physical environment impacts your mood. 

“If you notice that, for example, you experience less stress being outside of the city lights, there is less smog in the air and less noise for you to contend with and as a result, you are sleeping better and thinking more clearly, then I would say you have some key evidence to support your decision,” Scott says. 

When a Change in Environment Is Not Possible 

COVID-19 has changed everything we do and how we do it. Changing jobs, leaving a bad relationship, or moving locations is not always possible. The good news is there are ways to support yourself where you are now. Below are some simple solutions from Scott.

Ways to Improve Your Current Space

  • Increasing the amount of light in a room
  • Painting your room to a brighter color
  • Decluttering or organizing your space in a way that helps you feel more focused or relaxed, depending on the room
  • Trying to engage in different senses in your environment to help balance your mood. If you are in a stimulating environment and want to slow down, opt for quiet music or soothing sounds like ocean waves and scents of lavender, which can help reduce anxiety
  • If you are looking to feel more energized because of low energy, try a peppermint scent and brighter lights

If you are in a toxic relationship and moving away from it is not possible, Saltz recommends creating emotional distance, even if you are in the same space.

“You can do this by having unconnected confidants you can speak to and spending more time unengaged to the person in your home, like going out for walks away from them,” she says. 

But if the situation is abusive, Saltz recommends calling an abuse hotline to get advice and aid in how to remove yourself from your home during the pandemic. 

A Word From Verywell

Most of us will experience a change in our mental health due to environmental factors—especially during COVID-19. For some, the effects may be minimal, but for others, the toll on mental health will be significant. If you are experiencing an increase in symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental health condition, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with a physician or mental health expert as soon as possible.

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  1. Braithwaite I, Zhang S, Kirkbride JB, Osborn DPJ, Hayes JF. Air pollution (Particulate matter) exposure and associations with depression, anxiety, bipolar, psychosis and suicide risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2019; 127(12).