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Window view: Can it reduce (PhD) stress?

Few months ago, I was struggling with exhaustion and fatigue. My colleagues were saying perhaps I was stressed due to PhD. However, I was wondering why I am facing such exhaustion at that moment rather than the time while I was working almost 24 hours a day building the schoolyard in Bangladesh during my field survey. I also did not feel such fatigue at the early months of my PhD while I did not know whether I would be able to manage the fund to build the schoolyard. Nevertheless I was trying to reevaluate my everyday life, my home or work space. I was advised rest but what I could see from the living room window is this.....

View from the couch of my living room at Wardlaw Place

Well, the bouquet was a gift from my husband to cheer me up but what I could see is the view of the building opposite our flat. I did not want to stay at home from where I could not see the sky or green, yet the wet gloomy weather did not let me go out. I was missing staying at out first flat in Edinburgh which had a wide view of Pentland hills and the sky. Every evening while I came back from the University a wide green view awaited for me, I felt relaxed at home. After working for long hours in front of the computer in an open plan office with less scope of social interaction, now when I am back home, I cant see anything but the closed or curtained window of the flats opposite my window. I don't know whether I was consciously associating my increased stress level with the change in my environment just because I am an environmental designer or any mature conscious adult would do this. Whatever the situation is, this association is hugely supported by research of many years in this area.

View from the couch at Appin Terrace

Amount of window view of natural elements or greenery either in residential, work or educational environments has an impact on people’s cognition, health and well-being. Research shows increased amount of window view of naturalness improve cognitive functioning (Wells 2000), comfort, pleasure and well-being (Stigsdotter & Grahn 2002) and reduce stress related to job and intention to quit (Leather et al. 1998). Nature scenes dominated by vegetation improve general well-being and reduce anxiety (Ulrich 1979), reduce stress in prisoners (Moore 1981), help recover from surgery (Ulrich 1984), lower blood pressure (Hartig et al. 2003), lower heart rate (Laumann et al. 2003) and have general restorative potentials (Laumann et al. 2001)

I could not concentrate in writing or thinking about my PhD during that time. I was stressed and that was lowering my performance. Not only in adults but stress can be predictor of lower academic performance of children and adolescents as mentioned by  Li & Sullivan (2016) drawing on the findings of related studies. Through recovery of stress view of greenery can have positive impact on both primary and high school children’s academic performance (Li & Sullivan 2016; Matsuoka 2010).

How children perceive their surrounding environment is different than the adults. Its inevitable that children’s perceived restorativeness of the environment is different than how adults perceive the restorativeness of the environment. In their research Bagot et al. (2015), after investigating 550 students’ (8-11 years old) perceived restorativeness found that children’s play experiences and perceived restorativeness are strongly correlated with positive affect. Therefore, rather than the physical characteristics of the school playground children associate their restorativeness with their level of physical activity and opportunity of social interaction which should be given consideration while designing their restorative environments.

Severity of symptoms in children with ADHD reduced after being engaged in activities in green settings (Taylor et al. 2001; Faber Taylor & Kuo 2011). In another research Faber Taylor & Kuo (2009) found that a walk in a park setting has more impact on improving concentration in children with ADHD compared to a walk in urban or neighbourhood setting with less greenery. Following the track of Taylor and Kuo’s research, later Roe & Aspinall (2011) explored young people’s behaviour in conventional and forest settings where they found that adolescents with poor behaviour were greatly benefitted from exposure to natural settings, significant effects were found in their energy and hedonic tone and their stress was reduced measured by a questionnaire survey before and after a typical school day and a typical day in forest school. This clearly suggests that children’s poor behaviour can be managed by creating environmental settings with more natural elements. In a multi-methods quasi-experimental study on 133 middle school students in Austria it has been found the renovated schoolyard (more greenery, enhanced seating and sports opportunities and a drinking fountain were added to the existing environment) reduced students’ physiological stress and enhanced their well-being whereas, physiological stress in the students of the control schools were the same or slightly increased over the same time period (Kelz et al. 2013). The change in the schoolyard also partly increased its restorative potentials for the students.

My colleagues were suggesting me to do physical exercise or spending sometime outdoors (though did not stress on it considering the weather). What they did not know is I have changed my lifestyle from my earlier PhD days- I used to run thrice a week, were doing yoga at least twice a week and was walking to and from the University which I did not do before. I also lost some weight and came down to a healthy BMI level. After all these positive changes how come I am tired and exhausted and I stopped doing exercise or yoga which made me really worried about my situation. I found one research finding quite interesting which stated that being 'relaxed' in natural environment was more likely to reduce stress than being engaged in any kind of physical activity (Korpela et al 2001). I was dying to go somewhere else which could bring me the feeling of 'being away' along with fascination, extent and person-environment fit- the four key components that contribute to the feeling of restoration. At that point I have awarded with a residency program to spend three weeks in a small town Huntly, some 50 minutes from Aberdeenshire. Life in the room on the first floor of Old road with view of the hills and life of a small town, working in the kitchen of the Brander building with view of the Brander gardens and going out for a run by the river Deveron whenever I felt like that helped me to pull myself out of the fatigue and exhaustion. I should also mention that I was also taking pills for anaemia and Vitamin D deficiency at the same time. 

My situation might be a discrete incident, however, Outdoor environments have restorative potentials even for young children. After researching 198 children in eleven preschools, Mårtensson et al. (2009) found that children spent more time in the outdoors and were more physically active in the schools with high environment scores and low sky view factors, they also showed less inattention therefore, proving the salutogenic potentials of the outdoor environments.

In a study on 1089 randomly assigned respondents in Finland exploring the restorative experiences in the favourite places Korpela et al. (2008) found that length of stay in the favourite places is positively associated with restoration from stress followed by nature orientedness and frequency of visiting the favourite place. The restorative potentials of waterside environments is very strong, the high frequent visits to such environment and hobbies related to it i.e. swimming, boating or fishing and walking, jogging or berry picking is associated with strong restorative experience too. The authors also suggested that by changing the frequency of visit from once a week to 2-3 times per week would considerably increase the strength of restorative experiences. Therefore, based on the findings from such research, people suffering from stress can be prescribed regular visit their favourite places- both natural and built settings in their vicinity. 

All these findings suggest that design of the environment is important for children and adults' mental health and well-being. People of all ages and abilities should have access to parks or green spaces within a short walking distance from where they live, work or study. What they see from their living, work or study space is crucial which I can relate not only as an environmental designer but as a PhD student with inevitable PhD stress. The physical environment of primary schools should be designed carefully so that children have green view and as well as the opportunity to interact with others and be physically active.


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