It’s hard to believe, but your everyday surroundings can keep you in a state of low-grade stress. Now that so many of us are working at home these days, it’s important to pay attention to stressors that we might not recognize. Chances are you’ve become so used to clutter, noise, harsh lights, and other environmental stressors that you don’t notice they make you feel stressed. Studies show that under environmental pressure, your stress hormone levels can escalate even when you’re not aware of it. Over time these hormone levels take a toll on your mental and physical health.

1. Eliminate Environmental Pollutants

Scientists say that steady exposure to loud noises such as traffic, aircraft, and railway engines raise stress levels that can lead to high blood pressure, even heart attacks. Plus lawn mowers, car engines, and loud music increase stress levels and interfere with your concentration. If you’re surrounded by noise pollution, consider muting jarring news events or hard rock music from a blaring TV, radio, or computer. Soundproof outside racket with insulation, window treatments, pleasant background music, and nature sound machines, headphones, or earplugs.

Air pollutants such as cigarette smoke, chemical smells, mildew, toxic odors, and air quality—all can raise your stress level and lead to illness. Use humidifiers in dry areas and dehumidifiers in humid places. Ban tobacco smoke from your personal space. Rapid temperature changes also can trigger stress. Room temperature that is too hot or too cold can interfere with your concentration and escalate tension. Maintain a well-ventilated space with as much fresh air as possible.

2. De-clutter and Organize

Disorganized, cluttered living spaces can make your life chaotic and stressful. Clutter becomes a roadblock to finding things you need, cutting into valuable time and adding another level of frustration when you’re in a hurry. As things pile up, your stress level can go sky-high. You might find that your productivity wanes as you bounce from one task to another, paralyzed by where to begin. After a long day when you’re trying to relax, the last thing you want is stressful visual reminders of what needs doing staring you in the face. If you’re like most people, you’re seeking visual rest.

De-clutter by deciding what you really need and what you don’t. Then toss, donate, or recycle. Consider electronic billing and payment in order to eliminate excess mail and paper clutter. There’s something freeing and peaceful when your personal space is uncluttered, visually appealing, and functioning smoothly: the kitchen bar is free of junk mail, and dishes are off countertops and stacked in cabinets. Order conveys a feeling of calm and stability—a feeling that things are under control and all is right with the world.

3. Arrange rooms for Stress-Free Zones

It’s important to consider the environmental stress thresholds of other household members. Your family member or roommate might think blasting Lady Gaga’s latest hit is the coolest way in the world to unwind. But you might find it to be the most stressful activity on the planet. What is environmentally stressful for one person might not be the same for someone else.

Agree to certain common areas that are maintained to suit everyone’s needs. Separate personal areas such as bedrooms or office spaces can be individually maintained based on unique schedules and personalities. Whether you own or rent a house, condo, apartment, or cabin in the woods, planning for everyone’s preferences can save a lot of animosity and promote harmony among housemates.

Having a special place to relax makes you more likely to hit your pause button. Consider assigning a getaway where you’re not allowed to think about, feel, or deal with stressful issues. This stress-free zone is a place of solitude where you have quiet and serenity. Your zone contains no electronic devices, no work tools, no hassles, and no scheduling boards. Getting carried into a thought stream of worry, rumination, and pressure is off-limits in this special place.

Consider a special room for meditation, prayer, or contemplation. If you don’t have a room, find an area with minimum traffic flow. Make an altar containing special mementos and favorite photographs that raise pleasant memories and peaceful feelings. A corner of your den or bedroom where you wear earphones and listen to relaxing music also works as a getaway. Or you could turn your bathroom into a spa by placing scented candles around the tub, playing soft music, and drawing a warm bath with essential oils or rose petals. Dim the lights, slide into the tub, sip your favorite beverage, and soak away the daily stresses. Once finished, wrap yourself in a cotton, oversized towel.

4. Invite Mother Nature Into Your Personal Space

Another way to create a calm stress-free environment is to breathe as much natural life into your personal space as possible. Studies show that a view of nature from your window reduces stress. You can capitalize on scenes of wooded areas, water, sunsets, landscapes, or wildlife. Bring as much outside indoors as possible by arranging your living areas facing the views. If you don’t have a view, nature photos or paintings will do. An opened window with a soft breeze and nature sounds add a natural touch. A tabletop waterfall that makes babbling sounds, an aquarium or fish bowl, or potted plants, fresh flowers, or a terrarium have stress-relieving, restorative properties.

5. Accentuate Sensory Comfort

It’s important to create a personalized environment that attracts your five senses in a totally different way from the sensory experience you associate with daily pressures. Consider neutralizing your personal surroundings from the loud noises, harsh sights, rough textures, offensive odors, and strong tastes of your stressful world.

You can actually use color as a stress management tool when you choose room colors that calm and relax you. Studies show that colors affect your emotional state and raise or lower your stress levels. Red excites and stimulates you and makes your heart beat faster, whereas more natural tones of green (think trees and grass) and blue (think sky and ocean) have calming effects that relax you.

The use of soothing textures such as cushioned slippers, cozy blankets, or a comfy velvety throw creates sensory comfort. Certain scents evoke pleasant feelings and have soothing effects such as scented candles or a simmering pot of potpourri with whiffs of clove, cinnamon, and ginger root. If you have a home office, dolling up your workstation with personalized items—such as scented candles, appealing paint colors, vacation memorabilia, photos of children and spouses, dogs and friends—can warm a weary heart and lift your spirits.

6. Capture Natural Lighting

Artificial lighting is a subtle form of environmental stress, and limited sunlight can trigger depression and elevate stress. Studies show that artificial lighting such as fluorescent lights increases cortisol stress hormone levels. But you can turn your personal space into a stress-free zone with natural lighting, which is more restful and lowers stress levels. Create a well-lit space while avoiding harsh lights, and use indirect lighting or capture as much natural sunlight as you can.

Keep blinds and shutters open to create a sunny atmosphere. Remove window treatments, furniture, or objects that block daylight. Wash the inside and outside of windows on a regular basis. Studies also show that full-spectrum lights give you the benefits of natural lighting and elevate your mood, especially if you are susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Inventory Your Surroundings

I developed an inventory to measure my own home workstation and realized it needed a touch up. I de-cluttered my desk, installed a ceiling fan to cool warm summer days, and created noise buffers from my three barking Golden Doodles. The changes made my writing much more efficient, enjoyable, and productive. It enabled me to write my second novel in a much shorter amount of time.

What about your personal space? Notice if your surroundings contain the three S’s: Safe, Soothing, and Stress-free. Rate where the needle falls on a scale from 1 to 2 (Bad); 3 (Mediocre); 4 to 5 (Good) on these 6 conditions:

  1. Environmental Pollutants (noise and
    air pollutants and comfortable temperature)
  2. Organization (clutter, storage,
  3. Stress-Free Zones (quiet areas,
    common areas, furniture arrangement)
  4. Sensory Comfort (room color, music
    or nature sounds, scented candles)
  5. A touch of nature (plants, fish
    bowl, small waterfall)
  6. Lighting (natural sunlight versus
    artificial light, dim or well lit)

Sum your 6 scores into an overall score: 6-12 (Red Light. Needs a major touch up); 13-19 (Yellow Light. Maybe some light touches); and 20-30 (Green Light. You’re in tip-top shape).

As I did, you, too, can devise a plan to raise your needle from a 1 or 2 on each condition to a 4 or 5, depending on the conditions that are Safe, Soothing, and Stress-free. Suppose natural settings are soothing for you, and you rate Touch of Nature a 2 because you have a sofa blocking a large window with a wooded view and a bird feeder. Part of your plan might be to reposition the sofa so that the view brings more nature into your personal space and raises your needle to a 4.

Scientists say there’s a link between mental and physical health and a safe, soothing, stress-free living environment. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each of us has to determine what type of surroundings work best then personalize a space that fosters comfort, calm, and ease. After taking the inventory, see if your personal sanctuary or workstation needs a touch up then give them one and watch your mood and productivity soar.