It is commonly understood that a person’s mental health is affected by a number of interacting factors. For example, there is no single genetic component that explains why someone may develop depression, and there is no specific particle in the air that causes someone to have bipolar disorder. Instead, our genetics, diets, lifestyles, relationships, and a number of other factors all work with one another to determine what our mental states turn out to be. Everyday, we surround ourselves with certain people and work environments that impact how we think about ourselves and the world around us. What we put into our bodies can affect our moods; the amount of sleep we get can influence our attitudes for the day; and over time, all of these different components come together to shape our mental health. In this blog post, we will be exploring several key environmental factors that may be affecting our mental health for better or for worse.
What defines your physical environment?
A person’s physical environment consists of the external surroundings and conditions in which they live and which influence their health. For example, the location in which a person resides can interfere with the quality of air that they breathe in everyday, and the residential street that they live on can determine how good their sleep is at night depending on if the neighborhood is loud or quiet. One’s physical environment can also include the offices where one works or the people that one sees on a daily basis. Essentially everything that a person comes into contact with affects their mental health to some capacity. Some common physical factors that can influence mental health include:
- Environmental pollution: In the United States, 36% of Americans (or nearly 120 million individuals) live in air polluted areas. While it is already well established that air pollution is detrimental to physical health conditions such as respiratory and cardiovascular disease, it may not be common knowledge that air pollution can also play a major part in affecting mental health. A study done in America and Denmark reported that air pollution is significantly associated with the risk of several psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. In fact, nearly 85% of air pollution is derived from fossil fuel gasses, and this specific type of pollution consists of particles that can travel to the brain through our blood to cause inflammatory damage within important brain regions that may be related to autism, ADHD, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. In addition, recent studies have shown that air pollution can affect the regions of the brain that regulate emotions, such as the amygdala and hippocampus. Around 73% of these studies found that high levels of air pollution led to increased mental health symptoms and behaviors in humans. Children are also at a quadruple risk for developing depression and anxiety when exposed to polluted air compared to those who live with clean air. All in all, individuals who are breathing in dirtier air are more likely to experience changes to the brain areas that control emotion; therefore, they may be more likely to develop emotion-related disorders, such as depression and anxiety.
- Weather changes: In 2022, one in three Americans reported that they had been personally affected by extreme weather in the last 2 years. While most stated that they were affected by chillier weather events like extreme cold, hurricanes, or blizzards, 5% reported being affected by extreme heat. This is especially important to highlight because heat can seriously affect the mental health of those who experience it to an extreme degree. For one, individuals who already have mental health disorders and find themselves in hot climates are at risk for mortality because medications can only work properly within a certain temperature range. When it becomes too cold or too hot, medication no longer works as effectively as they should. Extreme heat has also been associated with a rise in aggressive behavior, domestic violence, and increased use of alcohol among those with mental health conditions. For example, research shows that extreme heat can cause an increase of negative emotions across a population, and an increase in 1.8-10.8 degrees Fahrenheit can result in an uptick of about 250-1,600 suicide cases.
- Sleep deprivation: A recent statistic showed that nearly 20% of 22,330 adults participating in a sleep study met the criteria for insomnia disorder, which is a rate that is more than double what it was before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, about 56% of Americans state that they have experienced significant sleep disturbances during the pandemic, such as staying asleep, falling asleep, and overall poor sleep quality. Sleep is vital for individuals to maintain cognitive function and decrease the severity of anxiety and distress. Poor sleep can exacerbate psychiatric symptoms for those with mental illness, and it can contribute to the onset of mental health issues in otherwise healthy individuals. When people do not prioritize good sleep habits, or simply are unable to get good sleep due to environmental factors such as busy street roads, bright lights, noisy neighbors, or uncomfortable temperatures, it can contribute to a decrease in mental health.
- Inaccessible public spaces: About 1 in 4 Americans have a disability, making it increasingly difficult for many of our community members to get around without some kind of support. Unfortunately, a lot of the infrastructure that exists within our country does not support feasible accessibility for those with disabilities, and inaccessible public spaces hinders independent mobility. When people are unable to access their environment, it can become very discouraging and frustrating. For example, if a person who needs to go to a doctor’s appointment cannot physically get to the office because it is in a building that only has stairs and this patient has a wheelchair, how are they supposed to get the care that they need? A survey showed that about 70% of American public schools have physical barriers that are not disability friendly, and this results in many students not being able to get to classes on campus due to a lack of accessible entrances, or they may not have a place to live because dorms are not built to accommodate their disabilities. With so many physical barriers working against so many types of people in our community, it is not surprising that this can contribute to a declination in mental health.
- Lack of green space: As the world urbanizes more and more, millions of individuals are no longer able to enjoy natural landscapes on a daily basis. In fact, about 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas and this number is only on the rise. With more of the world shifting to an urban environment, it means that more of our natural environments are being destroyed to make room for these types of ‘concrete jungles.’ While this is already unfortunate, the increasing lack of green spaces can massively affect the mental health and well-being of those who live in these areas. When individuals are not exposed to green spaces on a daily basis, they are not getting the psychologically restorative benefits that come along with being exposed to fresh air, peaceful surroundings, and green scenery. Research has shown that being in green spaces to exercise can even preserve healthier mental states. Individuals who use natural, green spaces to exercise and do physical activity at least one time a week are at half the risk of poor mental health when compared to those who do not do so. Each week that a person uses a natural, green space to exercise reduces the impacts of poor mental health by another 6%. Therefore, it may be quite helpful to be intentional about the time you spend outside, and where you spend it. You may just be preserving your mental health by choosing a park for your next run, versus the treadmill!
Mental Health Affects Your Environment and Vice Versa
From the few examples above, we have shown that the physical environment in which you surround yourself with can affect your mental health. Whether or not you realize, the little habits, routines, and locations that you go to everyday can all work together to impact your thought patterns, and these factors can either improve or worsen the mental states for those who are susceptible to psychological disorders. Of course, it can go both ways. Those who are suffering with mental health conditions also have the ability to affect the environment around them. For example, some individuals may become more untidy, hoard, or even become unemployed due to their mental health conditions, and this can negatively affect their surroundings. When their surroundings suffer, their mental health suffers even more and a brutal cycle can slowly start. Being cognizant of keeping your environment as healthy and regulated as you can is a great way to take hold of your mental health, and it can enable you to make intentional changes to keep yourself in a healthy place.