Is COVID-19 making you stay at home or "shelter-in-place"? Turn your home into a healing space!

Are you one of the more than 100 million Americans and 1.5 billion worldwide under a stay at home or shelter-in-place order due to the coronavirus pandemic? Is being made to stay close to home stressing you out?

There are many ways that the physical environment can cause stress or create calm.

"A few simple interventions can turn your home from a stressful space into a healing one," says Esther Sternberg, who holds the Andrew Weil Chair for Research in Integrative Medicine. Sternberg is founding director of the university's Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance, a partnership that includes the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, the College of Medicine – Tucson and the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. The institute is dedicated to a vision of human health that fully encompasses the role of the built and natural environment in health, well-being and healing.

Sternberg, a pioneer in design and health research, suggests that people should think about their homes using their senses – "what you see, hear, smell, touch and do in a space." See her other suggestions below.

What You See

Beautiful views of nature are universally calming, so if you are working from home, try to place your desk or laptop near a window.

If you don't have a beautiful view, add a few potted plants to the windowsill, find a poster or photo of a favorite view and pin it to the wall near your desk, or surf the internet for beautiful views and put your favorites on your screensaver.

Even without something nice to look at, sunlight will enhance your mood. If you don't have a window to let in sunlight, full-spectrum lightbulbs or light boxes can boost moods almost as well as some antidepressants. 

"The healing power of full-spectrum or natural light is well known," said Altaf Engineer, assistant professor of architecture, chair of the Health and Built Environment Program at the School of Architecture and faculty member in the Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance. "Natural light has many measurable health benefits including but not limited to better sleep, increased productivity and significant improvements in physiological and psychological health."

Looking at a cluttered area is stressful, so now is a good time to reduce your clutter.

Sift through unneeded papers and clear your work area. If you are at home with small children, you can turn this into a game—ask them to help you sort, sift and organize their toys. Try to find a separate place to work, even if it is in your bedroom.

What You Hear

Loud noises are stressful while quiet nature sounds are calming. If you are nowhere near nature sounds, Sternberg suggests looking for nature soundtracks on the internet: ocean waves, rippling brooks, rain, birds, wind in the trees.

Music can also calm and uplift your mood. Listen to your favorite soundtrack as you work. This can help drown out the sound of kids and family members, allowing you to concentrate on your work.

What You Touch

Soft, plushy fabrics tend to be warming and calming.

When you are ready for bed, snuggle in a soft comforter or put on a pair of fuzzy socks. The warmth will help you fall asleep.

What You Smell & the Air You Breathe

Fragrances calm in two ways. Some fragrances, like lavender, are actually chemicals that induce sleep and calm. Aromatherapy uses essential oils to aid well-being, and lavender is one of them. Other fragrances, like the smell of apple pie, freshly mown grass or Christmas trees, can evoke memories of happy times and reduce your stress.

Think of smells that remind you of happy times and re-create them at home: Bake an apple pie or chocolate chip cookies, and get your kids to help you. Try to avoid artificial fragrances as they can contain chemicals that can alter normal hormonal functions.

Good ventilation in your house is also important.

If you are cooped up in a closed space, especially with several people, the carbon dioxide that you all breathe out can accumulate, making you sleepy and impairing your ability to think clearly. When working from home, make sure you get up and walk around or walk outside periodically, or put a small fan near your computer to blow away the carbon dioxide you exhale. Open your windows and doors, if you can. The fresh air will reduce the carbon dioxide inside.

Studies have also shown that the microbiome, the germs that normally live inside buildings, match outdoor germs when windows are openable, and match human germs when windows and doors are not open to the outside air.

The idea that fresh air is good for preventing infections is not new.

In addition to implementing hand-washing practices to reduce infection amongst the troops in the Crimean War, which began in 1853, Florence Nightingale also made sure that open windows provided plenty of fresh air and sunlight.

What You Do in a Space & Being Outdoors in Nature

The notion that being outside in sunshine and nature is good for your health goes back to the mid-19th century, when it was used in the treatment of tuberculosis and other infections. In the late 19th and early 20th century, places like Tucson, Arizona, New York’s Adirondack Mountains, and Davos, Switzerland, with their sunshine, high desert or fresh mountain air, were considered healing destinations.

Love of plants and nature and being in nature, called "biophilia," lessens stress and boosts moods.

Even if you are staying close to home, most mandates allow walking outside, as long as you stay at least 6 feet away from others and the area is not crowded. Take time every day to take a walk, if permitted in your location.

While you are out, listen closely to the sounds of nature. Even in a city you will hear birds chirping, maybe a squirrel or some wind in the trees. Take a few deep breaths as you walk – focus on the many smells that you pass. Look closely for wildflowers – you might even see flowering weeds poking up through sidewalk cracks,. If you are sheltering with your family, children can join the game and play 'I Spy' as they look for things in nature. By doing these things, your walk becomes a moving meditation that will reduce your stress. And if you cant get outside, walk from room to room—the movement will itself lower stress, and encourage stretching, even more necessary when we are confined.

Getting Comfortable

Adjusting the temperature and humidity can also help turn your house into a healing space. Research has shown that conditions that are too dry increase the risk of viral infection, while conditions that are too wet increase the risk of mold.

My research with the U.S. General Services Administration has shown that 30-60% relative humidity in a building reduces stress, and about 40-50% is best. This range is also associated with lower viral infection risk.

If you live in a dry area and you don't have a central humidifier, put a portable humidifier in the room where you work or sleep. You can even just boil some water in a kettle or on the stove – just don’t let the pot go dry – that is a fire risk!

Ergonomics is also important. Make sure that you have a comfortable place to sit or stand so that you don’t strain your neck muscles while working on your computer. As a rheumatologist and member of the Arizona Arthritis Center and BIO5 Institute, I can attest to the importance of doing this. Position your laptop so that the screen is at eye level, and use a separate keyboard so your elbows can rest on the arms of your chair. If you don’t have a standing desk or moveable computer stand, a box or a couple of books to raise the laptop will do the job.

Following these simple suggestions can help you turn your home from a stressful place to a sanctuary of well-being in this difficult time, and in so doing, can help your immune system do its job to keep you well!

Reviewed by

Victoria Maizes, MD
Andrew Weil Endowed Chair in Integrative Medicine
Executive Director
Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine
Professor of Clinical Medicine, Family Medicine and Public Health
University of Arizona

Kevin Kampschroer
Chief Sustainability Officer
Federal Director, Office of Federal High- Performance Green Buildings
U.S. General Services Administration


General: Healing Spaces

Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being. Sternberg, E.M., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (2009); paperback 2010; Translations: German 2011; Korean 2013; Chinese 2014

The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. Sternberg, E.M., W.H. Freeman Publishers, New York. (2000); Paperback (Holt) 2001; Translations: Dutch 2001; Chinese 2002; Japanese 2006.

Light and health:

Figueiro, M. G., Plitnick, B. A., Lok, A., Jones, G. E., Higgins, P., Hornick, T. R., & Rea, M. S. (2014). Tailored lighting intervention improves measures of sleep, depression, and agitation in persons with Alzheimer's disease and related dementia living in long-term care facilities. Clinical interventions in aging, 9, 1527–1537.

“Daylight Dividends”, Lighting Research Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) research and case studies.

Mead M. N. (2008). Benefits of sunlight: a bright spot for human health. Environmental health perspectives, 116(4), A160–A167.

Sound & Music:

Srinavasan K & Wellbuilt for Wellbeing Team Using Digital Health Wearable Devices to Understand the Relationship Between Sound levels and Wellbeing: A Segmented Mixed-effects Regression Approach. Complete paper presented at workshop on Information Technology and Systems, Seoul, Korea 2017

Hongisto V, Varjo J, Oliva D, Haapakangas A and Benway E (2017) Perception of Water-Based Masking Sounds—Long-Term Experiment in an Open-Plan Office. Front. Psychol. 8:1177. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01177

Ellis J and Thayer J.F. Music and Autonomic Nervous System (Dys)function Music Percept. 2010 April ; 27(4): 317–326. doi:10.1525/mp.2010.27.4.317.  

The Biological Foundations of Music Eds. Zatorre, R.J. and Peretz, I. (2001) Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 930.

This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession Levitin, D.J. (2006) Dutton, Penguin Group, New York, N.Y.

Biophilia & Biophilic Design:

Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. Eds. Kellert, S.R., Heerwagen, J.H., Mador, M.L. (2008) John Wiley & Sons Inc., Hoboken, N.J.

Indoor and Outdoor Microbiome:

Marcus H. Y. Leung and Patrick K. H. Lee. Microbiome The roles of the outdoors and occupants in contributing to a potential pan-microbiome of the built environment: a review (2016) 4:21 DOI 10.1186/s40168-016-0165-2

Carbon Dioxide & Cognition

Allen JG, MacNaughton P, Satish U, Santanam S, Vallarino J, Spengler JD. 2016. Associations of cognitive function scores with carbon dioxide, ventilation, and volatile organic compound exposures in office workers: a controlled exposure study of green and conventional office environments. Environ Health Perspect 124:805–812;

Carbon Dioxide Bubble:

Ghahramani A, Pantelic J, Vannucci M, Pistore L, Liu S, Gilligan B, Alyasin S, Arens E, Kampshire K, Sternberg EM (2019) Personal CO2 bubble: Context-dependent variations and wearable sensors usability. ELSEVIER, Volume 22:295-304 DOI:10.1016/j.jobe.2018.11.015

Pantelic J, Liu S, Pistore L, Licina D, Vannucci M, Sadrizadeh S, Ghahramani A, Gilligan B, Sternberg E, Kampschroer K, Wellbuilt for Wellbeing Project Team, Schiavon S (2019) Personal CO2 cloud: laboratory measurements of metabolic CO2 inhalation zone concentration and dispersion in typical office desk setting J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol, DOI: 10.1038/s41370-019-0179-5 PMID: 31636369


Razjouyan J, Lee H, Gilligan B, Lindberg C, Nguyen H, Canada K, Burton A, Sharafkhaneh A, Srinivasan K, Currim F, Ram S, Mehl MR, Goebel N, Lunden M, Bhangar S, Heerwagen J, Kampschroer K, Sternberg EM, Najafi B. “Wellbuilt for Wellbeing: Controlling Relative Humidity in the Workplace Matters for Our Health” Indoor Air 2019;DOI:10.1111/ina.12618.PMID:31663168

Taylor, S., and W. Hugentobler. 2016. Is low indoor humidity a driver for healthcare-associated infections?

Indoor Air, Paper 340: Session 98.

Physical Activity, Stress & Office design:

Lindberg CM, Srinivasan K, Gilligan B, Razjouyan J, Lee H, Najafi B, Canada K, Mehl MR, Currim F, Ram S, Lunden MM, Heerwagen JH, Kampschroer K, Sternberg EM “Effects of Office Workstation Type on Physical Activity and Stress” Occupational & Environmental Medical 2018;DOI: 10.1136/oemed-2018-105077.PMID:30126872

Built Environment for Aging Populations:

Engineer, A, Sternberg, EM, and Najafi, B (2018) Designing Interiors to Mitigate Physical and Cognitive Deficits Related to Aging and Promote Longevity in Older Adults: A Review. Gerontology 2018;64(6):612-622 DOI:10.1159/000491488 PMID: 30130764

U.S. General Services Guidelines on Healthy Buildings:

Related link:

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Researcher contacts:
Esther Sternberg, M.D.

Altaf Engineer

Media contact:
Alexis Blue
University Communications

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