4 Real Estate Experts Share How They Make Their Own Spaces Mental Health-Friendly

published May 18, 2022
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People have been turning to interior spaces for emotional comfort for hundreds of thousands of years, but it’s a fairly recent concept to consider the role the design of those spaces plays in mental health

“Whether we intend it or not, our physical surroundings constantly impact our mental health,” says Sarah Barnard, a WELL and LEED accredited designer and the owner of Sarah Barnard Design LLC. “Being cognizant of that fact is an opportunity to make design changes that uplift us and minimize stress, fatigue, and anxiety,” she says.

Barnard’s work involves creating personalized, sustainable interior spaces that support mental, physical, and emotional well-being, and teaching others how to follow suit. Here are five guiding principles she and other designers, home stagers, and Realtors have for creating a home that supports your mental health. Of course, everyone has different needs for their own mental health and well-being, so these tips are meant as general inspiration and ideas — it may look differently in practice for you!

Credit: Natalie Jeffcott

Accentuate cues to nature.

If you feel most relaxed when you’re outdoors, you’re not alone. Spending time in nature has been linked to lowered blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and lifted mood, among other benefits.

As such, there is a strong case to be made for biophilic design, which involves connecting interior spaces to their natural environments. This can be as simple as keeping your curtains or blinds open (or forgoing window treatments altogether) to emphasize your exterior views, says Barnard. 

She also decorates her home with nature in mind. “My furnishings, layouts, and color palettes all relate to plants and wildlife,” says Barnard. “Having nature as the uniting element throughout my home brings me joy, inspires my work, and brings me a sense of peace.”

Credit: Selena Kirchhoff

Cut the clutter and embrace negative space.

Clutter is a visual burden that can quickly turn into a mental one. If nothing else, clutter can lead to wasted time (think: looking for one document among a disarray of other paperwork) which is stressful in itself.

Stephanie Saunders, a Realtor with the Key Team at Leading Edge Real Estate, has organizational systems in place to nip run-of-the-mill desk mess in the bud. “When I transitioned to working from home during the pandemic, I invested in new filing and closet systems to keep my desk clear,” she says. “Having a system to reset is good for the mind and the soul. If everything has a ‘home,’ there is a sense that order and peace can be restored when necessary.”

For similar reasons, Barnard also recommends downsizing. “I recently moved into a new home and paring down my belongings was an important part of that process. Having more negative space in my environment gives me a sense of calm,” she says.

That said, keeping things in order, let alone cutting clutter entirely, is much easier said than done. Especially for people who have depression or anxiety, this tactic for making your home feel mental-health friendly can feel like a bit of a Catch-22. To help keep your home clean when you’re feeling depressed, breaking housekeeping tasks into micro tasks can help them feel less overwhelming.

Fill your space with fresh air and light.

There is a direct link between fresh air and feelings of happiness. Fresh air is high in oxygen and increased oxygen levels in the brain can help boost serotonin. Yvonne Laanstra, a home staging consultant and the founder of Staging Calgary, maximizes fresh air in her home by keeping windows open when weather permits, especially after cooking or if there are heavy scents in the air. 

Keeping windows open and unobstructed also helps to maximize natural light. “South-facing rooms will have beautiful yellow sunshine that can be very uplifting,” says Laanstra. “You can also mimic natural light and create that sunshine feeling in darker rooms. I use soft-toned bulbs for the best atmosphere.”

Surround yourself with what you love.

It’s important to feel personally connected to the spaces we spend time in. In fact, researchers have found that personalized workspaces can be a psychological comfort, leading to increased happiness and productivity among workers.

Andrea Bailey, the principal designer and owner of Staging by Andrea, makes it a point to surround herself with decor that resonates with her on an emotional level. This includes things like family pictures and plants — but that’s not all.

“Maybe it’s just me, but I like swings. I have one inside my house as well as outside. I swing, relax, and take in my surroundings,” says Bailey. “And I give the same advice when decorating for other individuals. You want to be surrounded by things that you love, so focus on what brings you happiness and calm and peace, whatever that may be.”

Credit: Sofie Delauw/Getty Images

Maintain clear boundaries between work and home life.

When you work from home, work-related stressors can easily spill into the rest of your life. Not being able to physically leave work at work can affect your happiness at home and may even lead to burnout. 

“Luckily, I have an extra room to work in,” says Bailey. But instead of a door, she uses a hanging partition to delineate her workspace from her living space. “I don’t have to open and shut a door, but my workspace is always out of sight. I like that I can walk by my office without seeing my desk and being reminded of work.”

She adds that having mental boundaries is just as important as physical boundaries. “At a certain time I say this is when the day’s done with the work. And I always make sure — especially when I’m working really hard — that I have some downtime, whether it’s to meditate or to have fun. It’s all about balance.”