The right surroundings can promote wellbeing

By Natasha Persaud

Look, listen, smell and feel, and you may help yourself to feel less stressed. "Brain research has revealed that the mind and body continually communicate," says Esther Sternberg, M.D., a rheumatologist and medical researcher from Bethesda Maryland known for her work in brain-immune interactions. "And our surroundings may influence our well-being in powerful ways."

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In her new book, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, Dr. Sternberg explores decades of research on the mind-body connection. Here, she shares insights on how to create places in your everyday life that calm and heal:

Explain healing to us.

Healing is quite different from curing, which is physical recovery from disease. Healing can be thought of as restoring a person to a sense of wholeness, emotionally, mentally and, when possible, physically. A person experiencing lifestyle stress can heal as can a person receiving palliative care.

How can stress interfere with healing?

There are many kinds of stress—physical, psychological and physiological. When any of these kinds of stress becomes chronic, they may end up harming the body. Chronic stress can contribute to illness and make it harder for a sick person to recover.

Chronic stress, and the stress hormones that accompany it, dampen the immune response and blunt the ability of immune cells to do their job of fighting infection and healing wounds. Over a period of months, chronic stress can kill nerve cells through the action of the hormone cortisol, which may result in impaired memory and concentration in susceptible individuals. Chronic stress is also believed to accelerate some aspects of aging. In short, when the stress response is continually activated, it ends up damaging the body and mind in significant ways, sometimes with lasting effects.

How can our surroundings contribute to stress?

A variety of elements in our environment can promote stress, from loud noise to air pollution to lack of sunlight to a lack of walking opportunities, according to medical research. If you spend a lot of time in dark, cramped, crowded quarters where noise is constant, you will be stressed. In a similar way, if you are socially isolated, far from friends and family, you will be stressed. In such cases, your immune system is burdened and the healing process slows.

How can our surroundings promote well-being?

Emerging research suggests that our surroundings may help us heal in one or more ways—by decreasing the stress response, lifting mood, boosting the immune system, reducing pain, and even changing our expectations, also known as the placebo effect. The placebo effect is often dismissed, but it is a very powerful aspect of healing, which may account for over 30 percent of the effect of any intervention.

How can our sense of sight help us heal?

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A landmark study of patients recovering from gall bladder surgery showed that patients who enjoyed views of nature from their rooms left hospitals a full day sooner than patients with views of brick walls. Among the many possible reasons for this healing effect: exposure to sunlight creates vitamin D, which plays a key role in boosting the immune system.

Another body of research suggests that full spectrum sunlight can reduce symptoms of depression and improve mood. In two studies of patients hospitalized for depression, those in bright, sunlit rooms left the hospital two to three days earlier than those in dim rooms.

Viewing a sweeping vista or an interesting scene may also produce a positive mood, and help us shift from a stressful mode to one of relaxation. Certain scenes are graded as beautiful or preferred, such as a mountain view, a horizon, a forest or a stream, according to research. One theory holds that when you view a beautiful or dynamic scene, it stimulates a region of the brain that contains a high density of endorphin receptors, producing feelings of pleasure.

Our brains may also respond positively to patterns that mimic nature. Scientists studying how a Zen rock garden promoted feelings of peace discovered that the rocks, which appeared to be randomly placed, actually formed a branching pattern resembling veins on a leaf, leaves on a twig, twigs on a branch and branches on a tree. Known as fractals, these repetitive patterns are found abundantly in nature in everything from flowers to waves to snowflakes—and they may soothe the mind.

Although the scientific evidence is less strong for colors, culturally, we've been trained to associate certain colors with calm. Blues and greens are deemed more soothing and environments with these colors may help reduce the stress response.

What about touch, hearing and smell?

In different ways, each of the senses may contribute to healing. In research on premature infants, for example, those who received massage, or soothing touch, absorbed more nutrients from food and gained more weight than other infants. The effect is due in part to the relaxation response of the vagus nerve, which orchestrates digestion.

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Sounds may also calm. Scientists who studied the effects of music on the brain discovered that certain parts of the brain associated with the reward pathway become active when people listened to music they enjoyed. The brain downshifts to relaxation mode in which the heart beats more slowly. In some studies of patients recovering from surgery, music even slightly reduced pain intensity. When paired with medication, that level of pain relief could be significant.

Scents may produce a relaxing effect—if individuals associate those smells with pleasant memories. Familiarity calms the central nervous system. Specific scents may also foster healing: fragrant oils such as lavender, for example, have been shown to ease tension, improve mood and induce sleep.

What are some ways to create a healing space?

"Rather than rushing through our busy lives without paying much attention to the spaces around us, we need to carve out a few moments here and there to allow ourselves to be aware of our place in the world and its place inside us," Dr. Sternberg writes in her book. "We need to allow ourselves the time to see the sun glinting off the surface of the leaves, to listen to the sounds of silence and of nature. We need to stop and inhale the smell of ocean salt or the fragrance of honeysuckle on a summer's night. We need to feel the gentle touch of a spring breeze…

"A healing space is your own place of peace created through what you see and feel and smell and hear—through all your senses. It can be a physical place that incorporates calming elements or a place in your mind, a place of music or a place of memory."

We need to incorporate healing elements into our homes, as well as our neighborhoods and cities, to promote greater well-being, says Dr. Sternberg. Think of pleasant places and times in your life, such as a holiday from childhood, and consider adding a few elements from that time to your living space, such as a cozy chair by the fireplace or the scent of cinnamon wafting through the house. Also add other elements you find soothing; for example, try falling asleep to a music player or alarm clock playing the sound of waves lapping onto the shore.

How have hospitals benefited from this research?

Research shows that hospitals that are easy to navigate; allow natural light and views of nature; incorporate art; and minimize noise help to reduce pain and speed recovery of patients. Visitors and healthcare professionals also report higher satisfaction and better sleep.

Your Healing Space: How to Create a Therapeutic Environment

Your environment can encourage you to live a healthier life. Communities that promote walking and places—such as healing gardens—that allow people to meditate have been shown to reduce levels of stress and promote wellbeing. Follow these practices to create your own healing space:

Stroll Image - MasterfileWalk Away Stress

Walking at a mild to moderate pace reduces stress: "When you walk at a regular pace, breathing deeply and evenly, the vagus nerve, with its soothing rhythms, takes over and overrides the adrenal gland, with its rush of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol," Dr. Sternberg writes in her book. "The beating of your heart and the tempo of your breathing synchronize. Your blood pressure falls; and instead of blood vessels clamping down to keep up blood flow to the vital organs, your heart pumps more strongly and effectively. The brake to your stress response has been engaged." Studies also document the mood-lifting effect of exercise and its beneficial effects on the immune system. Aim to walk a total of 30 minutes a day to experience these healing benefits.

Breathe, Say a Prayer

Places that foster meditation and prayer are also effective antidotes to stress. A number of studies show that these practices activate brain pathways and release nerve chemicals that both counter the stress response and have positive effects on enhancing mood and reducing pain. You might consider doing Tai Chi, yoga or meditation to experience the benefits.

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Reach Out and Touch Someone

The people in a place also affect our levels of stress: "Too many, and we may be crowded out and infectious disease may flourish; too few, and we may become isolated and depressed," writes Dr. Sternberg. "Just enough and we have a secure network of social ties to help us through times of illness and of want." To reap the benefits, take time to talk to your neighbor or help a friend and participate in social events you enjoy.

About the Expert: Her Place of Peace

Esther Sternberg, M.D., a rheumatologist and medical researcher, is the author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being. Her healing place: The backyard. "After I renovated it, I realized I had unconsciously recreated my mother's garden, full of trees, beautiful flowers and fragrant herbs. It is a very peaceful and quiet place where I can look at the stars, hear the crickets, rest and renew."

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 01 Aug 2009

Last Modified: 05 Mar 2015