We think about anxiety as a mental thing, but it’s often just as much a physical thing. It took me a long time to understand this. I used to think that if I felt anxious, the cause must be something going on in my life, in my mental life. A conflict with a friend or a big review at work: those were reasons to be anxious. They made sense.
But sometimes, I found myself feeling anxious for no good reason at all. I would feel butterflies in my stomach and start running through a list in my head, trying to figure out what I could possibly be nervous about. Some days it got so bad that my feet and hands would tingle. That’s when I learned that anxiety often comes from physical sources: too much caffeine, too little exercise, poor breathing habits. These things can cause a kind of agitation that feels to the brain like anxiety, so much so that your brain decides you must be anxious, and goes looking for things to worry about.
There are lots of ways that our homes add to our anxiety — without us even realizing it.
This was a big epiphany for me. But when I put this knowledge together with everything I’d learned about the way that our surroundings affects our emotions, I discovered that there are lots of ways that our homes add to our anxiety — without us even realizing it. This research-based list of tips has helped me create a space that eases, rather than adds to my anxiety, and I hope it will help you too.
1. Tighten up
In my old apartment, I had a lot of IKEA furniture. No shame in that, but the thing about furniture that’s held together with bolts and screws instead of joinery and welding is that over time those fasteners start to come loose. One day I was doing some work at my kitchen table and I couldn’t shake this uneasy feeling. When I got up from the table to get a snack, I noticed that my tea was sloshing around just from the movement of my standing up. I held the edge of the table and gently shook it. All the bolts were a little bit loose, making the table feel ever so slightly unsteady. It was like being on a ship instead of on firm ground.
I grabbed a set of Allen keys and went around tightening every chair, door handle, and table in the apartment. When I sat back down at my computer, the chair felt solid, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
2. Round the corners
Sharp corners activate a part of the brain associated with unconscious fear. This is likely because acute angles signaled that an object was a potential source of danger (jagged rocks, angular tree branches), so our brain puts us quietly on alert.
Sharp-edged furniture is sophisticated-looking and is often featured in beautiful home decor magazine shoots. But the last place you want to be on alert is at home. So when choosing furniture, look for circular or oval forms, or rounded rectangles that have a gentle radius on the edge. I try to do this everywhere, but it’s most important for pieces that will live in the center of a room, or in spaces where you want to be able to relax: bed, coffee table, nightstand, end tables. A simple test: if it feels like banging a toe or a shin into a piece of furniture might really hurt, it’s probably going to make you quietly anxious when you have to live with it.
What if you already have a lot of hard-angled furniture? See how it makes you feel over time, now that you’re aware of it. You may be able to use tip no. 3 (below) to soften the space up, or you might decide it’s time for a redesign.
3. Soft textures
If you’ve been craving a fluffy shag rug or a new throw blanket, here’s your excuse. Soft textures do a lot to decrease anxiety in a home. They soften a space visually, smoothing out hard edges. They also absorb sound, making the acoustics of a space warm and gentle, as opposed to jangly and agitating.
Some research also shows that when we’re in a negative mood, our brains naturally prioritize tactile stimuli over visual ones. (The hypothesis is that this tendency evolved to prompt mammals to seek out maternal or affiliative touch. Security blankets and “loveys” tap into the same drive.) So a home full of soft textures can provide relief when the going gets tough.
4. Add greenery
You knew this was coming. Nature has been shown to reduce anxiety, even in doses as small as a single potted plant. If your home doesn’t have nearby greenspace, or even if it does, adding houseplants to your space can provide a surprising degree of relief.
For those who don’t have a natural green thumb and are worried that the stress of keeping a plant alive might outweigh the benefits, here are fifteen of the easiest plants to grow.
5. Reduce complexity
A lot has been written about simplifying your life as a way to decrease stress. But I’m not talking about simplifying your space from a practical perspective (although I’m sure that’s helpful). I’m talking about simplifying it visually. This illustration of chairs may help explain what I mean. Simpler forms are more solid, more symmetrical, and use fewer patterns and materials. Complex objects tend to have more pattern and texture, less symmetry, and often have very contrasting colors and materials. The Eames are probably rolling over in their graves that I put that little red fiberglass side chair on the “complex” side. I did it because it shows how complexity can hide in simple-looking objects. All that wiry stuff going on in the base adds a lot of visual complexity that you don’t get from a chair with four basic legs like the Wegner elbow dining chair opposite it. You don’t have to only choose simple objects, but understanding when you’ve chosen a more complex design can help you balance things out by pairing it with simpler complements.
Why does complexity matter? It adds visual noise, something that people consistently rate as unpleasant when they see it in pictures of environments. Our brains like to create order and spot patterns, something that is hard when the space around us is visually distracting. I think it’s especially important because our homes have gotten visually noisier over the years due to complex-looking tech devices, the tangle of cables that comes with them, and all of the verbal clutter that accompanies the branded goods that live all over our homes.
You can reduce complexity by choosing simpler designs, arranging them in symmetrical ways, and sticking with a reasonable number of colors and patterns. Don’t take this to mean that you have to live with a grey or beige palette, which can be depressing (a topic for another post). But if you tend to pick colors and patterns that speak to you in the moment without looking at the overall picture, trying sticking with three to five colors that work together to create a harmonious palette. Other ways to reduce complexity include storing cords and devices out of sight and looking for ways to reduce the amount of packaging that you leave out on bathroom and kitchen counters.
6. Tidy up
Marie Kondo was right: tidying can offer a tremendous sense of emotional relief. Not only does it reduce frustration and cognitive load when everything has its place, but it also often works to visually simplify a space (see no. 5, above). One of the things I focus on most when trying to reduce the anxiety in my own home is something called tolerations. Tolerations are things that need attention: shoes that need to be resoled, a drawer handle that is coming loose, a pile of bills that needs to be paid. Often what we do when things need attention is we leave them out to remind ourselves to take care of them. But the effect is that we surround ourselves with a silent to do list that is constantly distracting us. How can you relax when everywhere you look is something that needs fixing, replacing, donating, etc.?
Walk around your house and make a big list of all of these tolerations. Anything you can tuck out of sight, do so, and add these items to your to do list. You might be able to tackle them all in one ambitious weekend day, or do one a day until you cross them all off. Another tip: make a kit that contains things you might need to take care of these tolerations on a regular basis. This might include WD-40 to fix a door that gets squeaky every summer, waterproofing spray for your shoes, and extra lightbulbs for a fixture that doesn’t take standard bulbs. Having these things on hand means you can take care of issues before they become tolerations.
One more reason to think about tidying up: In a study of kitchens, people spending time in a dirty kitchen ate more unhealthy snacks than those in a clean kitchen. Mess can actually trigger emotional eating.
7. Buy things that wear in, rather than out
Lastly, if you’re someone who cares a lot about the things in your home and wants them to stay in good condition, this itself can be a source of anxiety. But it is no fun worrying about whether your sister’s toddler is going to stain your sofa or whether your clumsy friend is going to chip your glass table. Some people just don’t care, but if you do, you can save yourself a lifetime of stress by following this simple rule: Buy things that wear in rather than out.
This has a lot to do with materials. One crack in a glass table, and the whole thing is useless. But scratches in a wood table deepen the character of the piece. Brass and weathered copper become more beautiful with use, but shiny chrome looks dingy and smudgy when handled. Silks and satins are easily stained and not-so-easily cleaned. Linens, cottons, and velvets develop a soft, worn-in look that makes them feel more welcoming with time.
You can save yourself a lifetime of stress by following this simple rule: Buy things that wear in rather than out.
I hope some of these ideas help make your home more of a happy place. If you have your own tips for reducing anxiety at home, please share them here or on Instagram with hashtag #joyspotting.
Images: blue sofa with table by Kari Shea; yellow sofa by Christelle Bourgeois; chairs all from Hive Modern, clockwise from top left: Pierre Paulin little globe chair, Leaf lounge, Eames side chair, Labyrinth chair, Tom Dixon wingback, Hans Wegner elbow chair.