Giving space to the soul: Healing environment in psychosomatics

Have you heard of the term Healing Environment? Most likely not yet, because the concept is still quite new in Germany. But it holds tremendous potential for psychosomatics. Find out what is behind the term and how our environment influences our psyche.

Healing Environment – Influence on Mental Illness

Imagine you are in a crisis, at a crossroads in your life, or in a difficult decision-making process. Where are you more likely to be drawn to? To the noisy, chaotic hustle and bustle of the city, to concrete-filled squares with a view of the traffic? Or rather into the green, into the silence of the forest or into your familiar four walls?

Most people probably find it easy to choose the latter. Intuitively, we know which environment does us good in difficult situations. More and more, it is filtering through to doctors, architects and city councils that clinics should take advantage of this.

From sterile hospital environment to personal atmosphere

Because of the cost factor, the typical hospital of our time is functional, equipped with as many beds as possible, and usually has white, sterile walls. If there is a small garden, it serves primarily as a smoking area. Few trees grow around the clinic and there are often virtually no plants or pictures in the wards. There may be a few meters to the nearest park or green space, and thus they are not accessible to all patients.

Of course, large hospitals focus on other criteria due to costs, but the Healing Environment movement wants to change just that. The impersonal hospital atmosphere should be changed and clinics should be built in environments that promote patient health.

A view of the green

Research shows that environment affects our recovery. If patients can look out the window at greenery from their hospital bed, they recover more quickly (Richter et al., 2014). This is equally true for patients with physical as well as mental illnesses. Spending time in nature or in a garden can be healing; some clinics even offer special garden therapy! In nature, we can find our way back to our roots, recharge our batteries and come to rest.

Healing Architecture

Not only does the environment of clinics play a role in mental illness, but so does the architecture of the building. Roger Ulrich is considered a pioneer of Healing Architecture and describes the following factors for optimal building design in an essay:

  • Light
  • Fresh air and indoor climate
  • Space and room layout
  • Acoustics and volume
  • Haptics of room furnishings
  • Colors
  • Walkways
  • Odor

Large window fronts or overhead lights allow daylight to enter the clinics. For fresh air supply can be provided by a sophisticated ventilation system. We need light and fresh air not only to feel comfortable, but also to work effectively. Studies show the positive impact of brightness and warmth of light on productivity at work. Don’t forget, recovery from mental illness is also a busy task!

Surprising findings from Healing Architecture

The fact that daylight and fresh air are beneficial to health may not have surprised you that much now. But what other rather surprising aspects play an important role in making us feel good in a place? For example, we humans have sensitive sensors for the right balance of proximity and distance. This means that rooms in which people come into contact with each other should be divided in such a way that there is the appropriate distance for everyone involved. This applies to doctors’ and therapists’ consulting rooms, group therapy rooms, rest rooms and patients’ rooms.

If an environment forces us to stand close together, for example, we usually feel uncomfortable. At the same time, however, a room that is too large prevents us from establishing direct contact and a personal exchange, as well as building a confidential relationship with each other. The right mix is crucial here!

Other factors for the optimal design of therapy rooms, patient rooms and group rooms, especially for mental illnesses, are the acoustics and room climate. Reverberant, tinny acoustics create a feeling of disturbance in us, as do rooms that are too warm or too cold (Wieber et al., 2016). Noise pollution should be kept as low as possible and the guideline value of 40dB should not be exceeded (Nickl-Weller et al., 2007)

Patients’ togetherness can also be promoted by the architecture. Large, bright common rooms invite exchange with other affected persons and thus prevent isolation and loneliness. The rooms, on the other hand, should allow privacy. According to Ulrich, single rooms are preferable to multi-bed rooms.

An oasis of health

Did you know that sterile, white-painted exam rooms have been shown to cause stress and hypertension in patients (Ulrich et al., 1991)? The color science has provided interesting new research findings: The color blue has positive effects on our emotions, heart rate, and performance (AL-Ayash et al., 2016).

The color scheme of rooms in hospitals can therefore be adapted to promote patient recovery. The walkways in hospitals should be as short as possible and well signposted. Nobody likes disorientation, and especially in times of illness, clear architecture can give us a sense of security.

Thought should also be given to relatives. There must be enough space in the rooms and on the wards to receive visitors. Quiet, comfortable sitting areas in the corridors can invite people to linger. In a large, winding garden, patients can enjoy time out from the daily routine of the clinic and take a deep breath.

As you can see, the hospitals of the future will look different from what you have in mind. As German author and interior designer Sylvia Leydecker predicts in her book “The Patient Room of the Future,” the knowledge of Healing Architecture will gradually find its way into the German healthcare system.

Therapy in a feel-good environment

People with mental illnesses in particular benefit from a calm and healing environment. Especially in the case of burnout or depression, a stressful environment first contributed to the development of the disease. Affected individuals need the space and calm to restore their souls and psyches. Anxiety patients benefit from a low-stimulus environment that conveys security. Patients with eating disorders learn to stabilize their eating behavior again in a calm atmosphere.

A recent scientific review adds other aspects specific to psychosomatic settings. For example, an open design of the reception can convey a feeling of being welcome, or a simple layout of the building can facilitate orientation and thus convey safety (Fricke et al., 2018). So it can be said that therapy for mental illness needs not only time, but also space. And this space should be designed to be as healing as possible!

Creating my own oasis

We can use the findings of science not only for mental illness, but also very personally for ourselves and our basic well-being. First, we can make our homes as comfortable as possible for us. Warm light, a cozy atmosphere, quiet corners to retreat and cuddle. Many little things increase the feel-good factor.

For example, you can look for warm white light when buying LED lamps or use candlelight more often in the evening. Regular shock ventilation and water bowls on heaters ensure a pleasant indoor climate. Pillows, blankets and rugs can directly make an apartment more cozy without much effort.

But since we also spend a lot of the day at work, we should also make sure that the room conditions there are as good as possible. How about making your desk a little more personal or creating a little more space for yourself? There are no limits to your ideas! Imagine that your health is a plant that needs optimal environmental conditions to grow and flourish. You yourself are the gardener and have the design of the environment in hand.

More info desired?

For those who are gripped by the topic of healing environments and healing architecture, TED Talks are available for more information. In TED Talks, scientists give short and exciting reports on their research topics. In addition, companies such as Kopvol specialize in healing construction and design, for example, children’s hospitals or chemotherapy centers that internalize the Healing Environment concept. A look beyond the end of your nose is always worthwhile!


(1) AL-Ayash, A., Kane, R. T., Smith, D., & Green-Armytage, P. (2016). The influence of color on student emotion, heart rate, and performance in learning environments. Color Research & Application, 41(2), 196-205

(2) Fricke, O. P., Halswick, D., Längler, A., & Martin, D. D. (2018). Healing architecture for sick kids. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy

(3) Leydecker, S. (2016) The patient room of the future. Interior design for healing and care. Birkhäuser. Cologne

(4) Nickl-Weller, C., Eichenhauerr T., Matthys S., (2007). Health Care of the Future 4. Healing Architecture. MWV Medizinisch Wissenschaftliche Verlagsges.Berlin

(5) Richter, D., & Hoffmann, H. (2014). Architecture and design of psychiatric facilities. Psychiatric Practice, 41(03), 128-134

(6) Ulrich, R. S. (1991). Effects of interior design on wellness: theory and recent scientific research. Journal of health care interior design, 3(1), 97-109

(7) Ulrich, R. S. (2006). Essay: evidence-based health-care architecture. The Lancet, 368, pp38-S39

(8) Wieber, F., Windlinger Inversini, L., Konkol, J., & Conrad, N. (2016). Workplace habitat: on the influence of architecture and spatial design in the work context. Journal of Organizational Development, 2016(4), 94-97.

Categories: Therapy

Verena Klein
Autor Verena Klein
"Die LIMES Schlosskliniken haben sich auf die Behandlung von psychischen und psychosomatischen Erkrankungen spezialisiert. Mit Hilfe des Blogs möchten wir als Klinikgruppe die verschiedenen psychischen Erkrankungen näher beleuchten und verschiedene Therapien sowie aktuelle Themen vorstellen."

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