How Does Your Environment Affect Your Mental Health?

How your environment affects your mental health

Verywell / Laura Porter

The environment and mental health and intrinsically connected. The places where you spend a lot of time—home, work, school, and even socially—can have a significant impact on your mental well-being. In psychology, these are referred to as environmental factors of mental health and are the main focus of study for environmental psychologists.

Identifying the environmental factors that can affect you psychologically can shed light on whether the locations you frequent are contributing to or detracting from your mental wellness. It can also help you recognize if changes are needed to start feeling better mentally and emotionally.

The Environment and Mental Health

In some cases, environmental factors impact mental wellness by changing brain structure and function. Research on children supports this, noting that children raised in adverse environments tend to have hindered brain development, increasing their risk of memory issues, learning difficulties, and behavioral problems.

Environmental factors can also affect our mental health in the way they impact us psychologically. Your environment might raise or lower your stress levels, for instance. This can change your mental wellness overall, either serving to protect your psychological health or opening the door for mental illness to set in.

The world around you can help protect you from mental illness or it may be a catalyst for mental health issues to form.

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

  • Aesthetics: Cluttered spaces can create feelings of overwhelm and anxiety, while tidy spaces can invoke a sense of calm. Having colors and objects in your environment that are meaningful can also boost mood says Snow. 
  • 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, and unreliable people in the environment can be very stressful to manage. Conversely, sharing a space with someone you trust, such as a partner or spouse, roommate, friend, or loved one, can create a sense of calm according to Snow. 
  • 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 family keepsakes, photos, or familiar objects can boost mood and create a sense of connection. 

Environmental Factors That Affect Mental Health

Several things in our environment can impact our mental health, either directly or indirectly. These environmental factors exist where we live, work, go to school, and spend our time socially.

Home Environment

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

Home-based environmental factors that can have a significant impact on mental health include:

  • Climate. This includes the general temperatures where you live, the amount of sunlight you get, and your exposure to natural disasters. Climate change is also connected with greater mental health issues. The rising temperatures are associated with higher rates of aggression and violent suicides, for instance, with an increased frequency of disasters contributing to the development of depression, adjustment disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Crime levels. If you live in an area with a lot of crime, you may feel the impacts mentally. Crime levels tend to affect females more strongly, increasing their risk of depression and anxiety.
  • Environmental racism. Environmental racism is defined as racial discrimination in environmental policy-making. It has been implicated as an important environmental factor that affects the mental health of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals and communities.
  • Pollution. Scott indicates that research shows increased rates of depression in more polluted areas. A 2019 review supports this, also indicating that long-term exposure to air pollution can increase one's risk of anxiety while even short-term exposure can increase suicide risk.
  • Presence of toxins inside the home. This includes both cleaning products and mold. “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,” says Scott.
  • Poverty. The social stress, stigma, and trauma of living in poverty can negatively impact the mental health of both children and adults which, in turn, can lead to employment issues and fragmented relationships. This creates a cycle that, for some, can be difficult to escape.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Work Environment and Mental Health

More than half of our waking hours are spent on work or work-related activities according to the 2021 American Time Use Survey. That’s why Scott says that our work environment plays a significant role in our mental health.

Several workplace factors can contribute to the development of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, some of which include:

  • Having a high-demand job
  • High stress in your specific role
  • Experiencing workplace bullying
  • Imbalance of effort vs. rewards
  • Low relational and procedural justice
  • Low social support in the workplace
  • Not feeling valued or respected
  • Not having control over your job

School Environment and Mental Health

Children, adolescents, and college students often spend a lot of their days learning in class, studying, or completing homework assignments. The environment in which they do these activities can impact their mental health.

School-based environmental factors that can positively affect a student's mental well-being include:

  • Having a sense of belonging
  • Feeling connected to the school (e.g., "I am happy to be a part of this school!")
  • Feeling safe at school, both emotionally and physically
  • Presence of a school-based support system, including teachers, school social workers, and school psychologists

Factors that can have a negative effect on a student's mental health are:

  • Being bullied
  • Lack of access to instruction manuals
  • Teachers not understanding how to deal with students who have mental health issues due to poor instruction or training
  • Unclear or unfocused academic objectives

Social Environment and Mental Health

Scott also points to the fact that your social environment can affect your mental health. This includes socioeconomic elements such as race and ethnicity and a lack of social support—which can all have a profound influence on your ability to cope with stress. 

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

Saltz indicates that 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," she says, "while tumultuous and disturbing relationships leads to chronic stress and lower mood and higher anxiety.”

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

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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 to how you feel. For example, one study found that when people with depression perceived that they had poor social support, their symptoms, recovery, and social functioning were worse.

But the opposite is also true. If you perceive that you are satisfied with your life, your levels of overall life satisfaction will likely be higher. This suggests that if there is some aspect of your environment that is negatively impacting your mental wellness, changing your perception of it may help you feel better.

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,” says Scott. To accomplish this, practice gratitude and create a routine or habit to reduce the clutter around you. The latter helps "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. Also, 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.

Identifying If Environmental Change Is Needed

Understanding that the environment plays a critical role in your mental health is the first step. The next step is to identify if a change is needed. 

According to Snow, it’s vital to notice the connection between how you're feeling and what triggers those emotions. “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 you notice that every time you spend a weekend outside the city you feel relaxed, that's a sign that something needs to change,” Snow explains. 

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 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. 

Environmental Changes That Can Improve Mental Health

If you want to improve your mental health, making changes to your environment can help. Snow recommends starting with the things you have control over and can accomplish relatively easily. Organize your space, for instance, or get a sound machine to cover up street noise. 

Or maybe you live in an area where sunlight is scarce. This is "a real concern with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)," says Scott. One solution is to implement bright light in your environment. This can help improve depression and anxiety, Scott says, especially during the long days of winter.

April Snow, LMFT

Creating opportunities for little wins will give you the energy to tackle bigger changes.

— 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. If you work from home, for instance, start with your home office. If you spend a lot of time in your kitchen preparing meals, you might want to start there instead.

To improve your social environment, Saltz says that focusing on your social surroundings, improving and growing more intimate in some relationships, being vulnerable with those you can trust, and distancing yourself from toxic relationships that are negatively impacting mental health can all make a substantial difference.

When a Change in Environment Is Not Possible 

Changing jobs, leaving a relationship, or moving to a new location 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.

  • Increase the amount of light in a room.
  • Paint your room a brighter color.
  • Declutter or organize your space in a way that helps you feel more focused or relaxed.
  • Engage 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. 

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Most of us will experience a change in our mental health due to environmental factors. 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, schedule an appointment with your physician or a mental health expert. Help is available.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does environment affect mental health?

    The environment can affect your sense of social support, comfort, and level of stimulation. Factors such as crime, racism, and pollution can influence your health and safety, which can have a profound impact on your mental well-being. The environment can also influence your stress levels, which can then have an impact on your physical and mental health.

  • What are three environmental factors that affect mental health?

    Three main types of environmental factors that affect mental health are:

    • Physical factors, such as pollution, working conditions, and weather conditions
    • Social factors, such as abuse, poor support, and toxic relationships
    • Other factors, such as lack of stimulation, lack of green outdoor spaces, and messy environments 
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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sara Lindberg, M.Ed
Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., is a freelance writer focusing on mental health, fitness, nutrition, and parenting.