Is COVID-19 Making You Stay at Home? Turn Your Home into a Healing Space!

Whether for a home office or general living space, the way you lay out your physical environment at home can reduce stress and create calm, say researchers from the University of Arizona.

Are you one of the more than 100 million Americans and 1.5 billion worldwide under a shelter in place or stay at home order due to the coronavirus pandemic? Is being made to stay close to home stressing you out?

Esther Sternberg, MD

There are many ways that the physical environment can cause stress or create calm, say University of Arizona researchers.

"A few simple interventions can turn your home from a stressful space into a healing one," said Esther Sternberg, MD, who holds the Andrew Weil Chair for Research in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. Dr. Sternberg is founding director of the university's Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance, a partnership that includes the UArizona Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, the College of Medicine – Tucson and the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. The institute is dedicated to a vision of human health that fully encompasses the role of the built and natural environment in health, well-being and healing.

Dr. Sternberg, a pioneer in design and health research, suggests that people should think about their homes using their senses – "what you see, hear, smell, touch and do in a space."

What You See

Beautiful views of nature are universally calming, so if you are working from home, try to place your desk or laptop near a window, Sternberg suggests.

(Photo: The University of Arizona Health Sciences/Kris Hanning)

"If you don't have a beautiful view, add a few potted plants to the windowsill, find a poster or photo of a favorite view and pin it to the wall near your desk, or surf the internet for beautiful views and put your favorites on your screensaver," she said.

Even without something nice to look at, sunlight will enhance your mood. If you don't have a window to let in sunlight, full-spectrum lightbulbs or light boxes can boost moods almost as well as some antidepressants, she added.

"The healing power of full-spectrum or natural light is well known," said Altaf Engineer, PhD, assistant professor of architecture, chair of the Health and Built Environment Program at the School of Architecture and faculty member in the Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance. "Natural light has many measurable health benefits including but not limited to better sleep, increased productivity and significant improvements in physiological and psychological health."

Looking at a cluttered area is stressful, so now is a good time to reduce your clutter, according to Dr. Sternberg.

"Sift through unneeded papers and clear your work area. If you are at home with small children, you can turn this into a game ­– ask them to help you sort, sift and organize their toys. Try to find a separate place to work, even if it is in your bedroom.”

What You Hear

Loud noises are stressful while quiet nature sounds are calming. If you are nowhere near nature sounds, Dr. Sternberg suggests looking for nature soundtracks on the Internet: ocean waves, rippling brooks, rain, birds, wind in the trees.

"Music can also calm and uplift your mood," she said. "Listen to your favorite soundtrack as you work. This can help drown out the sound of kids and family members, allowing you to concentrate on your work."

What You Touch

Soft, plushy fabrics tend to be warming and calming, Dr. Sternberg said.

"When you are ready for bed, snuggle in a soft comforter or put on a pair of fuzzy socks," she suggested. "The warmth will help you fall asleep."

What You Smell

Fragrances calm in two ways. Some fragrances, like lavender, are actually chemicals that induce sleep and calm. Aromatherapy uses essential oils to aid well-being, and lavender is one of them. Other fragrances, like the smell of apple pie, freshly mown grass or Christmas trees, can evoke memories of happy times and reduce your stress.

"Think of smells that remind you of happy times and re-create them at home: Bake an apple pie or chocolate chip cookies, and get your kids to help you," Dr. Sternberg said. "Try to avoid artificial fragrances as they can contain chemicals that can alter normal hormonal functions."

Good ventilation in your house is also important.

"If you are cooped up in a closed space, especially with several people, the carbon dioxide that you all breathe out can accumulate, making you sleepy and impairing your ability to think clearly," Dr. Sternberg said. "When working from home, make sure you get up and walk around or walk outside periodically, or put a small fan near your computer to blow away the carbon dioxide you exhale. Open your windows and doors, if you can. The fresh air will reduce the carbon dioxide inside."

Studies have also shown that the microbiome, the germs that normally live inside buildings, match outdoor germs when windows are openable, and match human germs when windows and doors are not open to the outside air.

The idea that fresh air is good for preventing infections is not new.

"In addition to implementing hand-washing practices to reduce infection amongst the troops in the Crimean War, which began in 1853, Florence Nightingale also made sure that open windows provided plenty of fresh air and sunlight," Dr. Sternberg said.

What You Do

The notion that being outside in sunshine and nature is good for your health goes back to the mid-19th century, when it was used in the treatment of tuberculosis and other infections. In the early 20th century, Tucson, with its sunshine, high desert and mountains, was considered a healing destination.

Love of plants and nature and being in nature, called "biophilia," lessens stress and boosts moods, Dr. Sternberg said.

Even if you are staying close to home, most mandates allow walking outside, as long as you stay at least 6 feet away from others and the area is not crowded. Take time every day to take a walk, if permitted in your location, she suggested.

"While you are out, listen closely to the sounds of nature. Even in a city you will hear birds chirping, maybe a squirrel or some wind in the trees. Take a few deep breaths as you walk – focus on the many smells that you pass. Look closely for wildflowers – you might even see flowering weeds poking up through sidewalk cracks," Dr. Sternberg said. "If you are sheltering with your family, children can join the game and play 'I Spy' as they look for things in nature. By doing these things, your walk becomes a moving meditation that will reduce your stress." And if you can’t get outside, walk from room to room – the movement will itself lower stress and encourage stretching, which is even more necessary when we are confined.

Getting Comfortable

Adjusting the temperature and humidity can also help turn your house into a healing space, Sternberg says. Research has shown that conditions that are too dry increase the risk of viral infection, while conditions that are too wet increase the risk of mold.

"My research with the U.S. General Services Administration has shown that 30-60% relative humidity in a building reduces stress, and about 40-50% is best," said Dr. Sternberg. "This range is also associated with lower viral infection risk."

If you don't have a central humidifier, put a portable humidifier in the room where you work or sleep.

Ergonomics is also important. Make sure that you have a comfortable place to sit or stand so that you don’t strain your neck muscles while working on your computer, added Dr. Sternberg, a rheumatologist and member of the Arizona Arthritis Center and BIO5 Institute.

"Following these simple suggestions can help you turn your home from a stressful place to a sanctuary of well-being in this difficult time," she said.

Related link: https://awcim.arizona.edu/covid_19.html.

For the latest on the University of Arizona response to the novel coronavirus, visit the university's COVID-19 webpage.

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This article originally appeared at the UA News website.

NOTE: Photos available upon request.

About the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine
The Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine (AWCIM) at the University of Arizona is leading the transformation of health care by creating, educating and actively supporting a community that embodies the philosophy and practice of healing-oriented medicine. AWCIM is internationally recognized for its evidence-based clinical practice, innovative educational programs and research that substantiates the field of integrative medicine and influences public policy. Since its creation in 1994, AWCIM’s vision of making integrative care available to all is being realized worldwide: AWCIM graduates are now guiding more than 1 million patients to take a greater role in their health and healing. For more information: awcim.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter).

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences
The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. UArizona Health Sciences includes the Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona, the greater Southwest and around the world to provide next-generation education, research and outreach. A major economic engine, Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and garners $200 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).