Finding Calm Amid Chaos
How to create intentional spaces at home that prioritize mental wellbeing
They say home is where the heart is . . . along with everything else these days. The COVID-19 pandemic has put new demands on our sacred spaces, pushing our living quarters to the max and testing our ability to multitask. As the suggestion to stay at home drags on, changes intended to be temporary are starting to feel permanent, yet unsustainable at the same time. Personally, I’m beginning to wonder if my kitchen table will ever not have a laptop on it. It seems unlikely, and what felt like a fine solution to working from home in March now feels uncomfortable.
Given the likelihood that many of us will continue to work, learn, and live from home this fall and winter, it feels appropriate to make our spaces comfortable for the long haul. How can the home environment maximize both physical comfort and mental well-being? While everyone’s situation is different, developing a questioning and problem-solving approach can help.
For example, the now-common Zoom meetings that, in essence, bring others into your home, can raise many questions. How does it feel when boundaries between the workplace and the home become this flexible, whether we want them to or not? How do we feel at ease in this new normal? And while some people have no problem Zooming from their bedroom, others may choose to use fake backgrounds or a designated impersonal space, to maintain privacy.
“It can be helpful to remember that you are willingly inviting others into your personal space even when you are using a virtual meeting platform, like Zoom,” said Dani Fazio, a licensed therapist and co-owner of Therapy For The People in Portland. Whether you’re engaging in a professional interaction, taking classes, attending church, or catching up with a friend, that interpersonal energy is in your space. It may even be in your bed. “If it feels right to answer customer emails or call your kids’ teachers from your bed, you keep doing you,” Dani says. But if it’s feeling too crowded in there, energetically speaking, or you’re struggling to sleep at night and waking up with work-related stress, Dani suggests setting intentions and boundaries about where you do what you do all day.
“Our living spaces are designed with routines in mind: retiring to our bedrooms in the evening provides a psychological cue for our brains and bodies to prepare for rest. Without those cues, the transitions between working and not working can become difficult to navigate.” If your home-work boundaries aren’t feeling sturdy enough, consider using the virtual background feature available through Zoom, asking if you can attend some meetings with the camera turned off, just using the audio feature, or choosing a space in your house with a nondescript backdrop when you do have to turn on your computer camera.
When it comes to making our overlapping living and working space physically more comfortable, Karen McPhedran, an interior designer and owner of Tallwood Design based in Readfield, says right now her clients are eager to refresh their homes and spaces. “People are just so tired of being cooped up and looking at the same things all day.” She’s also noticed a shift in the areas that clients are interested in creating or updating.
In the past, homeowners often made improvements for the comfort of visitors. Now, Karen says, the design work is more intimate. She’s creating fitness rooms, master suites, plenty of home offices, and even a few saunas, as well as consulting on strategies for organization, decor, and layout of existing spaces. Especially in rooms intended for work, Karen encourages clients to dampen sounds with rugs or drapes, which helps offset other noises from the house. “It’s about creating spaces that make people feel at ease,” she says. She also likes to incorporate framed photos (with happy associations for the client—perhaps of positive people and places from a pre-COVID world) into workspaces, as well as plants.
“Any room I create has to be finished off with plants,” says Annie Kiladjian of Annie K Designs in Portland. “The organic shapes of plants balance out the harsh lines of cabinets and furniture and add an overall softness to any space.” There’s also extensive research pointing to the health benefits of plants, including their ability to remove toxins from the air. If you’re not an accomplished green thumb, choose an easy to care for variety like a fern, spider plant, pothos, philodendron, or aloe. Pick a fun, decorative pot for a pop of color or a design statement.
For a more significant design change, Karen often uses peel-off wallpaper and tile sheets to create impact walls and backsplashes (stick to low-splash areas of the home to protect the adhesive). She particularly loves a product called Stikwood. “It’s strips of very thin reclaimed wood planking with an adhesive backing,” she explains. Sustainably produced and available online, it can be cut with a utility knife.
When clients are interested in overhauling a room’s color, Karen uses a tool on the Sherwin Williams website that allows users to upload a photo of their room and virtually apply different paint colors. “It’s a great way to experiment with color before making a commitment,” she says.
In addition to any permanent changes, Karen encourages clients to pay attention to the energy in their homes. “How your house smells and feels can have an impact on anxiety,” she says. Being a little extra organized, simmering something fragrant on the store, or taking time to enjoy outdoor living spaces while the weather is nice can help combat the stress of balancing home and work life under one roof. “Our world is different,” she says. “It’s making us prioritize our lives differently.”
Dani encourages her clients to actively seek relief from the persistent sense of uncertainty created by the pandemic. The constant feeling of unease can trigger a response from our autonomic nervous system, Dani explains, moving us into a place where control feels out of reach. “We tend to panic, explode, micromanage, isolate, or people-please,” she says. However, one autonomic nervous system response that is less often discussed is safe connection. This is a feeling of wanting to approach ourselves and others with empathy, assertiveness, and mindful awareness. “Safe connection can be the resiliency builder we need to care for ourselves and our community as we adapt during these unpredictable times.”
Safe connection can start at home, Dani says, in the ways we show up for one another, acknowledge the emotions we’re feeling, and communicate. Ritualization is also important, especially activities that engage our senses and feelings of comfort in the present moment. Things like listening to music, cooking, reading, gardening, stretching, or going for a walk offer predictability in uncertain times. “Safe connection can also look like reaching out for support when things are feeling out of our control,” Dani says. Hearing a friend’s voice, touching base with family, or connecting with a therapist can provide a lifeline and a nervous system re-alignment when our busy virtual lives leave us feeling depleted or lonely.
With no clear end in sight for the home-work-school-life bottleneck, it makes a lot of sense to devote resources (time, labor, money) to optimizing one of the few things we can still control: our homes. Before you start moving furniture, check in with your psyche and identify the most pressing needs. Then set clear, attainable goals. Whether you’re making small or significant adjustments, the objective is to end up with spaces in your home that provide a sustainable sense of calm and shelter from the storm.