A six part series on how to live a fuller happier life –
by DEFINE’s Emotional Wellness Expert, Jessica Pass, LMFT
Take a minute and imagine you’re standing on the edge of a beautiful cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the breeze cooling your skin as it casts its way past you. You notice the sun gently beaming down and glistening across the water, birds flying in the distance, and waves crashing against the rocky coast below as the fresh ocean air fills your lungs.
Focus on the serene environment, notice the change in your breath, the calm sweeping through your body as you focus on every detail of the experience. Now, come back to reality. Notice your surroundings and take a mental note of what you are feeling now. If you’re like me, you flashed back to a cluttered desk or long list of “to-dos.” You might feel some of your anxiety returning or your thoughts start to pick back up again, clouding your focus. You might possibly feel overwhelmed with what has yet to be accomplished.
It’s amazing how quickly our environment can change our mood, affect our nervous system and either encourage productivity or drown us with anxiety. For most people, everyday life generates unavoidable environmental stressors like traffic, overcrowded shopping centers, cluttered homes, noisy offices or jam-packed schedules, creating stress, tension, over-stimulation and often times leading to depression and anxiety. When these feelings continue for long periods of time, chronic illness, depression, cardiovascular disease and other physical and mental distress can result. Even more concerning is the fact that if continued for years these stress-induced physical changes can create irreversible neurological effects.
In a study by Evans and McCoy (2008), it was noted that common elements available in daily living that combat stress include: sunlight, nature, balanced visual complexity, pleasing spatial configuration, and control of privacy. These restorative elements may lead to healthy levels of reactivity that affect our nervous system and restore both mental and physical balance, calming us from the inside out. In contrast, environments or aspects of environments that are non-restorative are those that provoke anxiety or sympathetic over-activation through overstimulation, sensory deprivation, incompatibility, confusion, and discordance. Environments with extreme temperatures, excessive noise, crowding, clutter, or generally poor aesthetic quality can induce a state of chronic stress-coping, both physically and mentally.
After taking into consideration “restorative” and “non-restorative” elements, think about your day, the activities or schedule you have, consider your home environment and/or work space, maybe even the noise level throughout the day. What times of the day do you feel most inspired, awake, rejuvenated, energetic and positive? What brings you down, frustrates you, makes you feel stale or complacent? It could be the color of your office or a coworker that stands out in your mind, or it might be clutter or an open airy space. At what point do you feel overwhelmed, anxious, stressed or have difficulty focusing? Are there any places or points in your day when you feel the most energy? When do you feel calm, serene and centered? It is staggering how much impact where and how we spend our time, as well as with whom we spend it, has on who we are, how we perform and where we will go. If you’re anything like me, your environment can determine the entire course of your day. I have learned that my productivity level is at its highest when I’m alone, in my office and have soothing music playing. If I even attempt to write or focus on a project with a lot of activity (Starbucks, for example) or at home when I have a mound of laundry calling my name, I can forget any deadlines I am trying to meet! Not only that, but in designing my office, I paid special attention to the elements I brought into my space, first asking the question, “Will this piece feel right in the room?” or “Will this element inspire me?” I did this with small accents to large furniture. As I write this, I feel somewhat silly, but it has been the best thing I’ve done to create a space that feeds my creativity and stimulates my productive side. I feel motivated, serene and determined!
So now you might be thinking… Now what? Redecorating your house or switching office spaces isn’t exactly practical. Remember to take baby steps. First, becoming more aware of these times in your day will allow you to focus on different strategies or methods to allow more times of energy building to arise and slowly weed out the energy blocking aspects. For example, keep fresh flowers in your kitchen and/or common areas to brighten your mood and stimulate fresh new ideas or if it’s a person in your life that causes stress look for opportunities to minimize your contact, take deep breaths when you are interacting with them and try journaling to understand where your feelings are coming from. Remember that you can say no too and work on not over-committing yourself. Keep space in-between activities for down time, it helps with transitions and will give you more energy for your commitments.
It is important to remember that long-term changes take time and overwhelming yourself with more to-do’s to de-clutter your environment might not be the best thing either. Try incorporating one new element a week for 6 weeks and reflect to see if you have been successful in creating more times throughout your day that you feel accomplished, rejuvenated, serene and positive. Then reflect on your productivity level and you’ll be surprised just how much more inspired you will have become!
DEFINE’s Emotional Wellness Expert, Jessica Pass, LMFT
Jessica Pass is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Instructor at DEFINE body & mind. She has a private practice in Houston, Texas, specializing with children, adolescents, individuals, couples and parents. Jessica’s approach incorporates mind-body integration, education and practical strategies to improve emotional wellness, emphasizing all aspects of who we are to live fully and thrive in our relationships.
More from Jessica’s series: