Our homes are our refuge now more than ever, but having spent so much time in them this year, they can feel less like a sanctuary and more like a prison.
It doesn’t have to be that way. There’s a lot we can learn about how to work with our homes’ design to soothe our frazzled nerves.
For help we talked with interior designer Kerrie Kelly, owner of Kerrie Kelly Design Lab, and Stephani Robson, Ph.D., an environmental psychologist and faculty member at Cornell University, who has spent more than 10 years researching how the design of hospitality spaces can alleviate anxiety.
Can rearranging your furniture help? Actually, maybe.
The way we’re wired from an evolutionary standpoint, Robson explained, is to use our environment to protect ourselves. Our bodies don’t have any weapons and we can’t outrun a wolf, so when we're feeling stressed or insecure we like to pull into ourselves in our spaces, she said. In a public setting that might mean tucking into the corner booth of neighborhood cafe, but at home that can just mean sliding a chair to the corner, or moving your bed from the middle of the wall to the corner.
Even Robson’s mother did this, she said, when she moved her favorite chair into the corner. “She didn't even realize that she was doing it,” she said. “It’s so nice because now I can look out the window,” her mother said, ”and I can see this and look over there and see that but it just feels right in that corner.”
It’s in our nature to do this, Robson said, and you may have done it yourself, too. “You may already identify a place you'd like to be as one that's more, what I'll call anchored up against the wall,” she said. “You know when you're in a situation like this you still want to see things, you don't want to hide under a blanket and not see what's around you [and feel] even less psychological control over what's happening.”
Consider throwing an extra pillow onto that chair, while you’re at it. Something that you feel wraps around you “really gives you that sense almost like you're being held,” Robson said, and can help you feel more comfortable. All the better if it’s pretty. “Even start with a throw pillow and just add a little color, or a little personality,” Kelly said. “A little pretty goes a long way, especially during this time.”
Say yes to a plant
If you’re looking for comfort, “give me something to take care of, something alive,” Robson said. “Especially a plant that you really see something happening, whether it's regrowing scallions, or herbs … something that you can affect change on in a positive way…. especially now, I need to affect positive change on something.”
Plants, and bringing the outdoors in might “be a trend all day long,” Kelly noted, but “I do think that it contributes to wellness.” It can be as simple as cutting flowers from the back yard, she said, “to accessorize a surface that now you're working at to bring you a little bit of joy.”
Maybe it’s time to clean out the junk drawer
There’s a psychological attribute called perceived control, Robson said, and when you don’t feel like you have control over, say, leaving your house, or having people over, “that increases stress level.” People interpret the stress in different ways, such as anger, boredom, or frustration. “But it's really just lack of control,” she said.
Reorganizing can provide a sense of control over the environment that you're in, she said. Maybe it’s taking the books off the shelf to organize, or cleaning out a cupboard to get rid of things that are expired. Or “just cleaning out that drawer that everyone has in their kitchen which is filled with things of indeterminate origin.” Whatever it is, she said, “the psychological value of taking some sense of control when you have very little is really important.”
A little pretty goes a long way, especially during this time.
Kerrie Kelly, interior designer
Or rethink entire rooms
We’re using our homes in different ways now, Kelly said. “I think people are looking around their houses and saying, ‘I don't need to impress [someone] down the street. I need this house to work for me and speak to me,’” Kelly said. “Sometimes that's as easy as really celebrating a moment … a travel moment or family moment,” by framing a photo and putting it on the wall. “Or it could be changing up a lighting scheme to have a room have layered lights so that it can have one mood in the morning and a totally different ambience at nighttime, so that you can unplug and, you know, take a deep breath … and maybe slide an ottoman under your feet that used to sit under a desk, and just look pretty.”
Maybe there was a room that always sat empty with vacuum marks in the carpet, she said. “Can that now be your yoga studio, can that be a play area for the kids that also has a spot where everything gets tucked away?”
Now, not everyone has the luxury of enough space to dedicate a whole room to a yoga studio, Robson noted. But what we can do, she said, is calibrate our space for stimulation. There’s an inverted curve, she explained, with a point at which ”you're sort of at the optimum degree of stimulation. And if the environment is more stimulating than that we stopped liking it as much.” So we need to find ways to reduce that stimulation that’s getting our heart rates up, or upsetting us, she said. If that’s coming from the TV in the bedroom, maybe it’s time to reconsider that.
When all else fails, paint
Should we be painting our homes soothing colors? “You know, there is tons of research on color,” Robson said, “and there's no consensus. So, paint something a color you like. That's all. Pick something you like that makes you smile. And if hot pink makes you smile, paint your room hot pink, it's fine, it's your room. It's important to find things that bring you a little burst of joy.”