Creating a calm atmosphere with nature

Jeff Guenther on Feb 28, 2017 in Physical Office

In the day-to-day, the sounds and sights of the big city grind can feel overwhelming. While nearly all therapists strive for a calming atmosphere in their offices, most do so based entirely on intuition (or what the interior decorator recommended). However, there are elements you can add to your mental health office space that are proven to encourage clients to relax and open up.

Much of the following is based on how we emerged as a species. Human evolution greatly favored those that thrived in nature; those that could find water, successfully domesticate animals, gather plants for food, and determine safe areas to rest, were rewarded. Unsurprisingly, mankind almost universally enjoys certain aspects of the natural world, including plants, animals, and landscapes. Here are some ideas to bring to your own office for the benefit of your clients.

Houseplants

From studies of office employees, to residents of retirement communities, to 2,000 randomly selected American households, it’s been repeatedly proven that being around plants makes just about everyone feel calmer and more relaxed.

The studies included plants that could easily fit on a desk, as well as larger plants and planters, all of which proved equally beneficial in creating a calmer atmosphere. If you’re a houseplant beginner, some plants that are hardy and thrive indoors in low light are Chinese Evergreens, aloes, and ZZ plants.

Aquariums

While the bond between humans and their pets has been well documented, it’s not always convenient to allow clients to bring their furry (or scaly) friends in. But, there is a way you can reap the calming benefits that animals afford. In a study done in an oral surgery office, those in a waiting room with a fish tank were independently graded to be far more relaxed not only by themselves, but also by the oral surgeon and study investigator. Some easy-to-care for fish that would be right at home in your office include betta and tetra fish. Protip: freshwater tanks are much more forgiving if you’re new to fish ownership.

Landscape photography

In the same study done on oral surgery patients, a waiting room with a photo of a waterfall also significantly reduced stress in the patients. However, the type of landscape that actually results in the most positive emotions across cultures are savanna landscapes. It’s been theorized this may due to humanity getting its start on the African savanna. Try looking for photography of open grasslands with scattered groups of trees.

Also proven to be calming are groups of trees and denser forests near bodies of water. This may be because clumps of trees offered good hiding places for our ancestors, while remaining near water allowed early humans to stay close to small animals and edible plants.

These landscapes in particular have been shown to be associated with feelings of peacefulness and relaxation, as well as reduced fear or anger. Stress reduction has been found in those that viewed rolling farmland and trees, as well. 

In studies done in a dental waiting room as well as a psychiatric in-patient facility, those with a large, open natural scene mural had lower blood pressure and anxiety than those that had no murals, or those that had abstract or symbolic art. (Side-note: there were no documented attacks on the natural landscapes, but numerous on the abstract art.)

The need to ‘get away from it all’ is a pervasive one; and it’s a feeling that both clients and counselors alike can often relate to. Since it’s hard to take off to the woods, farmlands, or mountain streams at the drop of a hat, hopefully you’ll be able to pull some of these natural elements into your office to create a safe, inviting sanctuary for your clients.


Source: H. Frunmkin, Beyond toxicity, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 20, 234-240 (2001).

Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.

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