How Environmental Factors Influence Your Mental Health
  • July 22, 2022
  • By Content Writer at The Center for Developmental Psychiatry

How Environmental Factors Influence Your Mental Health

When it comes to your mental health, your environment matters more than you may think. Human thought and behavior develop within one or more environments having distinct characteristics. From noisy, crowded cities to quiet, open, natural settings, and from your private bedroom to the entire natural external world, your environment plays an important role in your psychology, mental health, and wellbeing.

Environmental psychology is a branch of psychology that explores the relationship between humans and their external world. The influence of natural and human-built surroundings on how people feel, think, and behave is a major focus of current research in the field.

Environmental psychology focuses on the enormous variety of physical spaces inhabited by people, including manmade and natural spaces. These can include relatively small-scale environments, such as classrooms, homes or apartments, public parks, and large-scale spaces such as schools, cities, and neighborhoods. In this article, we will look at the ways environmental factors influence mental health and wellbeing.

What are some key topics in environmental psychology?

Among the most important subjects in environmental psychology are the negative or positive effects that spaces have on the people who inhabit them. Environmental psychologists look at the impact of environmental stressors like noise or overcrowding, the restorative effects of natural environments, and the features associated with increased wellbeing and performance. They also study personal spaces, privacy, the sense of ownership of spaces and how people can better navigate their environments. They ask why certain environments are preferred over others, and what motivates concern for environmentally friendly behaviors.

Even in an increasingly crowded, urbanized world, the natural environment has become extremely important to human beings. In addition to providing open space to explore, play, and relax with minimal interference, nature appears to have many positive effects on mental health. Regardless how people experience the great outdoors, research suggests that we should not overlook its potential as a psychological elixir.

What are the psychological benefits of spending time in nature?

The time you spend in natural environments close to green space has been associated with various measures of wellbeing. According to several studies, it can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. Researchers have found evidence that natural environments can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They informally refer to it as “nature therapy” or “vitamin N” to highlight its potential benefits.

How much time should you spend in nature to feel better?

Researchers have found that spending just a couple of hours each week in green spaces is associated with higher ratings of health and wellbeing. Time in nature can also encourage exercise, which has additional benefits for health and wellness. Yet, even without exercise, time spent in nature delivered benefits. Environments that surround adults and adolescents contribute directly and indirectly to their health and wellbeing.

What are the main environmental factors in psychology?

Psychologists consider physical and social environmental factors in assessing mental health. Physical environmental factors include considerations such as:

  • Smoking
  • Substance abuse
  • Air pollution
  • Exposure to toxins
  • Sleep disturbances and deprivation
  • Extreme weather conditions (drought, flooding, heatwaves, earthquakes, blizzards)
  • Hazardous work conditions

Mental illness is a widespread health challenge and the conditions surrounding it are complex and multi-causal. Many people assume that mental illness simply runs in families. While this can be true, but genetics are just part of it. These disorders can be triggered by a combination of factors, including your environment and lifestyle.

The world you live and function in can play a major role in your mental health. Let’s dig a little deeper into the physical and social environmental factors that contribute.

Physical Environmental Factors

Physical environmental factors that contribute most to mental illness are those with the power to affect your biology or neurochemistry, increasing your chances of developing a disorder. For example, if you lack access to health-related resources such as whole, nutrient-rich foods and you tend to eat more processed and refined foods, your body and brain simply won’t function optimally. If you encounter a major stressor, you may not have the resources or immune system strength to effectively deal with it.

Social Environmental Factors

Social environmental factors include socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and related conditions that may influence your ability to cope with stress. Imagine not having a strong social support system. If you lose your job or go through a divorce, you may not get the support you need. Experts in marriage and family therapy advise that having supportive friends and family during difficult times is vital to your ability to cope with the stress. A lack of social support is just one social environmental factor. Others include:

  • Living in poverty
  • Toxic relationships
  • Early loss of a parent
  • Family discord during childhood
  • Social stigma (coming out as gay or lesbian)
  • History of physical or emotional abuse
  • Lack of spirituality or religious affiliation
  • Lack of meaningful work or hobbies
  • Lack of self-care and/or relaxation

Your overall health and wellbeing require a good balance of mental, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual health. Although mental illness can be inherited, a broad variety of factors like genetics, economic, social, and physical influences can also contribute to the development of a mental disorder. A psychologist must consider these factors to effectively diagnose and treat mental illness.

What constitutes “environment”?

Some scientists broadly define “environment” in mental illness, suggesting that it encompasses everything that isn’t genetic or inherited. Environmental health, however, has historically viewed environmental threats mainly in the context of infectious agents, pollutants, and other exogenous factors that influence your physical surroundings. Environmental threats to mental health include such traditional parameters along with pharmaceutical and illicit drugs, injuries, and nutritional deficiencies, but also consist of psychosocial conditions that relate to your perceptions of the physical and social world.

Many circumstances such as sexual abuse, falling victim to crime, or a relationship breakup can produce psychosocial stress. But experts assume that each of these circumstances triggers primal reactions, such as feelings of loss or danger, which serve to push you toward a particular mental state. They believe that feelings of pure loss can lead to depressive disorders, while feelings of pure danger can lead to anxiety disorders. Whether taken alone or in combination, psychosocial and physiological stressors can interact with a genetic vulnerability to alter brain chemistry, which can alter your mental health.

Much of the evidence points to an environmental role in psychiatric disease. When researchers studied identical twins, they found that, if one becomes schizophrenic, the risk to the other is often less than 50%. This suggests that environmental factors and influences must somehow be involved. They have observed similar findings with depression and other mental disorders.

The connection between environment and mental health

Environmental factors which affect your mental health may well be tied to other factors. For example, depression, alcoholism, or substance abuse can lead to unemployment, which can then lead to poverty, poor nutrition, and their associated environmental problems. Similarly, mental health conditions like hoarding or ADD can result in environmental problems. Often, environmental and other factors end up complimenting one another in a vicious cycle.

The good news is that getting help for the one aspect of mental health often helps another. Finding a psychologist or counselor who can help you come to terms with your mental health problems that are affected by and affect your environment can help you make the positive changes you need to improve your mental health and break out of a toxic environment.

Environmental psychology explores the relationship between humans and the external world. It examines the way in which the natural environment and our manmade environments shape us as individuals. Environmental psychology emphasizes how humans change their environments and how various environment change human experiences and behaviors.

If you have questions regarding the ways that your environment may be contributing to mental health issues, please contact the Center for Developmental Psychiatry in Teaneck, NJ. Call 201-304-7552 for more information or an appointment.

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