Harnessing the Power of Place
How does where we are affect how we feel?
Posted September 12, 2012
Not long ago, during a time when stress and fatigue had taken their toll on my body, I booked a weekend away at a local bed and breakfast. Nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I watched breathtaking mountain sunsets, delighted in deer frolicking in the woods, and sat for hours in a red Adirondack chair, soaking in the beauty around me.
It was healing.
But most of the time, the converse is true. I spend time in stressful places—doctor’s offices and hospitals, crowded shopping malls and airports, and places with far too many people crammed in far too little space, all of which trigger a stress response in me. And since stress can make you sick, that’s a problem.
Can our physical space help us heal or make us feel worse?
According to Esther M. Sternberg, MD, who lives with inflammatory arthritis, it can. “The idea that physical space might contribute to healing does, it turns out, have a scientific basis,” she says in her compelling book, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well Being.
“The first study to tackle this question, published in Science magazine in 1984, showed that when hospital rooms have windows looking out on the natural world, patients heal more rapidly.”
Since then, multiple studies have shown that that not only views of nature accelerate healing, but other environmental factors make a difference as well—reducing noise, sunlight, spending time in social places and places for contemplation all accelerate healing, reduce pain, and improve mood.
While place cannot cure chronic pain and illness, it can make a big difference in the way you feel, improving your physical and mental health and your quality of life.
Several months ago, I experienced this first hand when I attended a writer’s conference at Abiquiu, New Mexico, at the Ghost Ranch, a place made famous by artist Georgia O’Keefe who depicted the red hills surrounding the property in her paintings.
Despite a long, cross-country flight, getting very little sleep, and recovering from surgery to correct three fractured vertebrae, I experienced virtually no pain during the conference. “Why is that?” a friend asked.
The answer lies in the power of place.
Rustic but comfortable housing, reflective of its origins as a working ranch, dirt paths, and breathtaking vistas of colorful sandstone cliffs, cottonwoods, and distant mountains all worked to heal my soul. New and existing friendships gave me a deep sense of belonging, providing a safe place where I could be “known” and celebrated.
While I cannot move to New Mexico, I can create an environment at home that contributes to my health and wellbeing—spiritually, physically, and emotionally. As an introvert, I crave silence and solitude. For me, they are a necessity, not a luxury. It’s what I need to thrive.
Color speaks to me as well. I painted my office a warm clay color—not unlike the mountains and hills surrounding the ghost ranch, and a Georgia O’Keefe print hangs over my writing desk for inspiration. The walls in my living area are a soft sage, reminding me of happy times spent with my father walking through the woods.
Recently, I’ve been intrigued by a new thought—creating a sanctuary garden in my back yard, complete with a gazebo, or at least a bench serves as a reading nook. I started this summer by planting English lavender, my favorite plant, in the front yard and the back. Right now, I’m researching plants and landscaping, determining my next steps.
Designs for Healing
You, too, can design a healing space in your home or office. Consider these simple tips to get started:
- Add color and texture to your home. Infuse your home with a profusion of texture and color throughout the seasons. Use your imagination and let your home reflect your unique personality. Are you bold and daring? Accent your home with colorful paintings, accessories, and flowers you can change with the seasons.
- Play healing music. Some hospitals are turning to harp music to help patients heal. According to experts, music played on acoustic stringed instruments have several unique healing properties. Rita A. Schrimpf, a Certified Music Practitioner, says this on her website, “The resonance from the strings, including the range of pitch and tonal color, set up an important relationship between the sound and the recipient...Music has beneficial effects that can enhance the overall quality of patient care”
- Create a sanctuary garden. Surround yourself with plants and flowers that make you smile. Add a gazebo or bench where you can lose yourself in the beauty of God’s creation. Terry Hershey, who designs sanctuary gardens, advises, “The best garden is one where the gardener finds joy. Think of gardening as telling a story. Your story.”
- Live your passion. A dear friend, who is an artist, continually loses herself in her work for hours at a time, despite living with chronic pain and illness. The world can be following apart around her, but when she is creating art, she loses all sense of time. Fully engrossed in the work of her hands, she finds deep joy and healing for her soul.
What breathes life into your soul? Chances are it will bring healing to your body and mind as well.
- Does your space help you heal or does it make you feel worse? What changes do you need to make to your environment?
- Over the next day or two, notice your surroundings. What environments trigger stress? What environments invite contemplation and reflection?
- Consider all of your senses when designing a healing place in your home or office—sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Add something new to your environment that awakens your senses.
Mary Yerkes is an author, speaker, and chronic illness coach who fosters spiritual and personal transformation in people's lives, especially those living with chronic pain and disease. Like many of her clients, she lives with multiple chronic illnesses, including rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and psoriatic arthritis. She is the Chronic Illness Expert for the National Association of Baby Boomer Women. Visit Mary online at MaryYerkes.com.