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Margo Velez
Oct 31, 2012

Environment and Mentality

I’ve added a second office location and I am looking forward to working with clients in this inviting space. It has windows that stretch from the floor to the ceiling in the lobby and offices, bringing in a lot of light, openness, and views of the city. The furniture and décor are contemporary, yet comfortable, in soothing colors that evoke a sense of relaxation and calm. The space is clean and uncluttered, balancing a professional atmosphere with comfort.

In reflecting on this new space, I have been thinking about how physical atmospheres influence us. I believe that, in many ways, your surroundings affect how you feel. Our physical environments feed our senses and we process that information, which affects how we interact and respond to that environment. Moreover, cognitive-behavioral studies have revealed how the physical stimuli of an environment can be paired to evoke certain behavioral responses, feelings, and thoughts. This idea goes back to classical conditioning.

Consider some factors that influence the high rate of relapse among recovering substance abusers. One of them is how these individuals often return to familiar environments that have been paired with the behaviors and feelings associated with using. This idea, in terms of our relationship with our surroundings, has expanded to an entire field with Environmental Psychology. According to this model, a physical space influences one’s affect, behavior, level of awareness and connection, and identity.

Think about where you (and your clients) spend most of your time. This can be at home, at work, and even in your commute (car, bus, bike, etc). What do these spaces look and feel like? Think about the location, shape, lighting, colors, sounds, smells, textures, and objects within the space. Now, consider how the space and the objects inside it are structured and arranged. Is it organized and clean, or is it messy and cramped? Is there a lot of division within the space, or does it flow openly? What does this place remind you of? I am hardly an expert of Feng Shui, but I can appreciate how the ancient Chinese were on to something, with regards to how a space influences your mentality.

Another way to look at this idea is that an environment may be an extension of how one feels, or a reflection of one’s present mental state. For example, a client may live in a home, where the commonly used living spaces are warm, nicely decorated, and tidy. Yet, the infrequently used areas are unclean, cluttered, and jumbled with boxes of old memories, incomplete projects, unfinished organizational tasks, and discarded items. This home may embody the client’s neglect of aspects of him/herself that need recognition, or attention. A client may also live in a space that looks chaotic, which may reflect his, or her inner discord and confusion.

Yes, life happens and people get busy. There may be “no time” in a schedule to repaint, or sweep a room. It’s faster to throw the dry clothes on the couch, rather than fold them right away, when there is a meal to serve. Many people must multi-task the roles of financial provider, partner, parent, cleaning-service, design-team, and shuttle-transport driver all at once. I get it. Yet, the time passes quickly and before one knows it, the environment around the person has taken on a world of its own and they have perfected some bad habits that maintain that state of disorganization.

It’s important to consider how the spaces in which we spend most of our time reflect, affect, and/or maintain our inner state, or a particular mentality. Have you conducted an intake interview where you asked a client what his, or her living spaces look and feel like? The responses to these kind of questions could be very interesting, and significant in addressing affective and personality trends.

Margo Velez is a counselor and doctoral candidate, proudly serving the mental health and wellness needs of clients in her private practice, located in Atlanta, GA. For more information, visit her website here.

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