Interior design

Serene spaces: interior design to de-stress

Understanding the link between interior design and your mood can help you create more supportive and nurturing physical spaces at home.

Walking in the front door can feel like sanctuary. Alternatively, it can be a stressful environment of its own, filled with reminders of domestic jobs and repairs needing to be done, mess, clutter, noise, arguments with household members and other problems.

While few of us have a perfect home life, it is possible to modify our personal domains to make them more of a refuge. Rather than fork out on sanity breaks in luxury hotels and day spas, why not spend time and effort on making our own home into a rejuvenating retreat?

Ancient, holistic principles of design

Understanding how the various elements of interior design impact our moods and emotions is key to creating a peaceful, nurturing home, says holistic interior and building design consultant, speaker and university lecturer Anthony Ashworth.

Rather than focusing on how your home looks when decorating, put the emphasis on how it makes you feel, he says. “If we have a think about the word homely, it’s soft and holding, it’s comfortable. It’s not a showpiece; it’s not a place manufactured from a series of decorating decisions based on design trends. I really tell people to trust their intuition and to honour how they feel.”

Ashworth, who has spent over 30 years helping clients design better-feeling homes, says the ancient design principles of zen, feng shui and vastu offer systemised guidelines you can follow to give your home more of a tranquil vibe.

At the heart of zen design is the idea of having less so that you can focus more on what matters. Bring less into the home in the first place and do regular culls.

Zen design, which has its roots in Zen Buddhism, focuses on simplicity, purity and naturalness — think the tranquility of the Japanese tea house. Feng shui, also known as Chinese geomancy, is an understanding of how architecture influences the invisible life force of qi. Vastu is an ancient science of design linked to Indian Ayurveda, and an ancestor to Chinese feng shui.

Based on thousands of years of observation, these design philosophies are extremely practical and make good common sense, Ashworth says.

Here are some take-homes you can apply to create your own sense of sanctuary.

Bring in feminine energy

More feminine elements give your home a more nourishing, restful quality, Ashworth says. “One of the rules of thumb of feng shui is that our home should be about two-thirds feminine (yin) to one-third masculine (yang),” he advises.

Yin energy includes softer, rounder and dimmer elements. It’s all those things we tend to associate with our grandmothers: florals, soft-textured throws, drapes, cushions, fresh flowers in curvy vases, wallpapers and rugs. “This all softens the interior,” he says. “With all this minimalism we’ve lost all this softness.”

Avoid too many hard materials in the home (such as hard, shiny tiles and extensive glass surfaces) as well as too many sharp edges on things. “Sharp edges to furniture can create a level of psychological discomfort,” he says. “There’s this sharp pointy thing toward us — what’s known as ‘poison arrows’ in feng shui.”

Less means less stress

One of the biggest sources of stress at home is mess and clutter, Ashworth says. The recent global Ikea Life At Home Report found having too much stuff sitting around to be the biggest source of stress at home. However, it’s a source of stress we don’t always recognise.

Fortunately, it’s easy to fix. “Mess is more a temporary problem where we’ve got too much stuff lying around at a particular time, whereas clutter tends to be more permanent,” Ashworth says. The solution is adequate storage. “Have places to put your stuff and a level of organisation within the home that everything has its place.”

At the heart of zen design is the idea of having less so that you can focus more on what matters. Bring less into the home in the first place and do regular culls.

While open-plan living is popular, sometimes you need the psychological sense of protection and retreat that comes from a smaller, individual room.

“It’s also just letting go,” Ashworth says. “A lot of people with clutter issues have some level of psychological issues tied to that. They may have a fear of not having enough, that one day they may need that stuff and not be able to replace it. People get very fearful around clutter clearing. It can be overwhelming.” He suggests starting small — such as one drawer or cupboard at a time, and enlisting a friend to encourage you to throw things out.

Relax on perfection

On the other hand, Ikea’s report also found that striving for the minimalistic nirvana held up by interior design images was the main cause of domestic arguments for 49 per cent of those surveyed.

“The design itself needs to be able to accommodate life, yourself, your pets, your family and your friends,” Ashworth says. “It’s a balance between a soulful, warm and comfy home and something really sleek like the design magazines. We don’t want to be in the extremes of either.”

Feng shui your space

Related to clutter is a sense of space. Too much furniture or oversized furniture in a room isn’t relaxing. “Clutter literally stagnates the energy of a home,” Ashworth says. “It feels claustrophobic; it pushes in on us psychologically. Again, it’s a balance between not being too austere and having enough space.”

While open-plan living is popular, sometimes you need the psychological sense of protection and retreat that comes from a smaller, individual room. If you lack this, create a smaller division of space with room dividers, curtains or low walls, Ashworth suggests.

Having a view that draws your eye out to the distance (called the “Red Bird” in feng shui), takes you out of your own problems and relaxes yet energises you.

Also position beds and chairs against walls. This enables us to see who’s coming and going from the room, which helps us feel safe, supported and more in control, Ashworth says. “It’s a feng shui principle called the ‘Black Warrior’ or ‘Turtle’.”

Cultivate security

A further element of feeling safe in your space is security. Ashworth, who has many female clients, finds fear of crime is a common stressor at home, particularly among those living alone.

Adequate locks on doors, windows and boundaries and other security features can enhance a sense of safety (don’t go overboard or your home might feel like a jail!). Good path lighting at night, such as solar lights that come on by themselves, and being able to see people coming to the front door or gate, as well as connecting visually to your neighbours (you may need to trim the bushes to do so) also help — think of the design of castles and fortresses.

Maintain and sustain

A hotel with broken tiles, peeling paint and other things that need fixing is hardly relaxing. Staying on top of repairs, and the money or time needed to do so, is worth the peace of mind you’ll gain.

“There’s a lot of people under financial stress because of their home and the rampant cost of utilities,” Ashworth adds. “If your home is more sustainable in terms of solar power, double glazing, insulation and other features that help you cut costs, that can reduce stress.”

Biophilic design

When it comes to materials, try to incorporate as many natural ones as possible. All those lovely wooden floors, woven reed rugs, straw baskets and other nature-based interior elements currently in vogue spring from biophilic (nature-loving) design. It’s based on research linking natural environments and materials with better psychological and physical health. “Fake materials create a low-level tension in our mind that the world is an illusion,” Ashworth says. Furnish your home with wood, stone, bamboo, cotton, paper and other natural substances. Also bring in fresh flowers and indoor plants and encourage pleasant views to the outside through windows, Ashworth suggests. Having a view that draws your eye out to the distance (called the “Red Bird” in feng shui) takes you out of your own problems and relaxes yet energises you, he says.

Soothe the senses

Likewise, you don’t want synthetic, chemical odours in your home. Nor do you want to smell garbage or mould. Take a leaf out of the day spa industry and scent your home with natural oils with a known relaxant effect, such as lavender, clary sage, vanilla, citrus and others. Use oil burners, diffusers and homemade potpourris to distribute scent.

Noise can be another sensual stress creator. “Low level noise, such as the background hum of appliances like fridges and air conditioning, can create massive stress,” Ashworth says. For those located along highways or under flight paths, outside noise can be a particular source of stress. Invest in external sound-blocking barrier fences, walls, and hedges, and acoustic blockers inside your home. Plant water fountains, chimes and even music-players throughout your home to drown out the stressful sounds.

Calming colours

Colour can have a powerful, instantaneous effect on our mood.

Ashworth recommends earthy, natural colours occurring in nature to reduce stress. “Sandstone colours — yellow, off-whites, caramels and other earth colours — create a level of sedation and tend to quieten the house itself,” he says. “To bring energy into the home use splashes of bright colours.” However, avoid busy combinations of colours and too many patterns. These contribute to visual clutter. Avoid grey walls and dark colours if you additionally suffer from depression, he says.

Ambient, natural light

Light also powerfully impacts your mood. “One of the most critical factors in the energy of a room is good quantities of ‘natural’ light,” Ashworth says. “Window furnishings that allow us to modify and have control of the environment are important.”

Natural light (which contains a balanced spectrum of all the colours of the rainbow and changes its composition through the day to help us wake and sleep) is better for our mood than the artificial kind.

At night, warm-spectrum globes provide a much cosier feel to a room than the cold-spectrum LEDs or fluorescent lights. The gold flames of candles are also another way to set a soothing scene that additionally helps relax us into sleep.

Invest in rest

Take your cue from luxury hotels and invest in a comfortable bed and linen (also wash the sheets regularly!). Sleep and mental health are closely aligned and deep, quality sleep restores our nervous system and brain function.

Avoid the small home office or TV in the bedroom, Ashworth says. “It’s a place for deep rest.” Those who sleep less than well should install light-blocking curtains, avoid bright colours, too much glass, clutter, mirrors and anything that gives off energy — like tech, plants or crystals — in the bedroom.” Cultivate a cosy, quiet and earthy space. “A bedhead and bed-foot hold you. We want it to be a bed-womb,” he says. “But, if you’re not having sleep issues do what you like.”

Create a mini-sanctuary

Traditional societies tended to have a type of altar in the home as a place to connect your spirit to, Ashworth says. For us modern types, he suggests a nature altar, small, quiet zone within our home or garden sanctuary that encourages the meditative contemplation we can access to calm stress.

A comfortable chair with proper support at the back is a must and plays an underestimated role in offering us a means to relax. Ashworth is a fan of the wingback chair. “The chair holds you, it wraps around you. Even if you nod off, you don’t fall off.”

Tame tech

Don’t let screens dominate your home. “Social media and TV bring a lot of stress into our homes,” Ashworth says. “All the news programs generally revolve around negativity. From a traditional perspective, we believe that negative energy lodges and accumulates in the home.”

“Sandstone colours — yellow, off-whites, caramels and other earth colours — create a level of sedation and tend to quieten the house itself.”

The design of your home can keep screens in check. Restrict the TV to one part of the house and set up a charging station to leave devices like phones and tablets out of sight, Ashworth recommends.

Unwinding rituals

Along with turning off your device — our accessibility through mobile phones and email extends the hours of work for many — have a routine for unwinding. “A really old-fashioned thing is to take off your shoes at the door and put on your slippers,” Ashworth says. “For a lot of people it’s that glass of wine or cup of herbal tea.” Having shoe racks at your entry and a gorgeous teacup or wine glass can help encourage the ritual, he says. “One of mine is to get out into my garden, water my vegies and pull a couple of weeds out,” he says. Hinting at one way gardening de-stresses us, a new University of Colorado study found a fatty acid in soil bacteria increases our resilience to stress.

Conduct an audit

Wander around your home and do an audit of things that cause stress and things you might like to introduce, then make changes over time. “Don’t be stressed about it,” Ashworth says. “It’s just having an awareness that your environment has an effect.”

Linda Moon

Linda Moon

Linda Moon is a freelance feature writer reporting on health, travel, food and local producers, work, parenting, relationships and other lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in International Traveller, Voyeur (Virgin Airlines magazine), Jetstar Asia, Slow Living, Traveller, Domain, My Career, Life & Style and Sunday Life (Sydney Morning Herald), Sprout, NZ Journal of Natural Medicine, Nature & Health, Australian Natural Health, Fernwood Fitness, The New Daily, SBS, Essential Kids, Australian Family, Weekend Notes, The Big Bus Tour & Travel Guide and more.

Based in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, Linda is a qualified and experienced naturopath, spa and massage therapist and a partly trained social worker.

Her writing interests focus on health, responsible consumerism, exploring beautiful places and the quest for a fairer, healthier and happier world for all.

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