In my years as a therapist, I have worked in a number of environments – doctor’s surgeries, youth centres, training facilities, and private practices. The spaces provided to work have ranged from ugly and depressing, through utilitarian and plain, to comfortable and friendly. In all of these working environments I have found myself ‘attending to the space’. It was important to me, to create an environment that nourished me and was welcoming and nourishing to my clients.
Even in environments where I did not have much latitude to alter or re-arrange, I would manage to include personal objects of value to me, to screen offending equipment, to introduce fragrances to counter ‘hospital’ smells.
I have fond memories of working in a family counselling centre with colleagues where we had a collective wish to turn a rudimentary facility into an environment that had ‘atmosphere’ – a place where we would be happy to work, and in turn a place to which our clients wished to come.
We brought from home, old framed prints, rugs to throw over elderly sofas, cushions, bean bags, art materials, plants. We created private spaces – rooms dedicated specifically to counselling. It made a real difference. We developed a highly respected service offering innovative programs. Our clientele grew from a trickle to a flood and remained that way for the seven years I was there.
There were of course, many other factors that contributed to the success of the Centre, but I have no doubt that attending to our physical surroundings and considering it’s effect on ourselves and our clients, played an integral part.
The impact of our surroundings is reinforced through my current working environment, Cottesloe Counselling Centre. When establishing the Centre in 1997, much thought was put into creating a Centre that was welcoming and that supported our therapeutic work. We receive a great deal of feedback from clients, colleagues, and visitors about how good it feels to come into, and be in the Centre.
Most of us know intuitively, that the environment, whether it be natural or man made, has a profound effect on feelings, behaviours, general health, and productivity. The discipline of environmental psychology grew from the collaboration between architects and psychologists in the 1950′s to improve mental hospitals. A discipline that began with investigating the effects of colour and chair arrangements on patients has now moved to a much wider field, and includes such diversity as noting the needs of visitors to our national parks to studying the stresses associated with urban living.
So how can we create an atmosphere that takes into account the research of environmental psychologists – one that is conducive to good therapy? How do we establish and maintain surroundings that foster personal balance and harmony, that strengthen and promote wellness, that value the dignity of each human being, and satisfies our needs and those of our clients?
There are many elements that combine to provide an environment that works that we may consider.
We are naturally influenced by and drawn toward light (phototropic). Make your spaces light and airy allowing the use of natural light where possible. Light your entrance and areas to which you wish attention to be drawn. Use lamps to soften the impact of harsh overhead lighting while providing sufficient lighting quality to observe facial expressions, gestures and other expressions of emotion.
Allow sufficient space so that there is no sense of intrusion on personal space in the waiting and counselling rooms. Where possible make a clearly defined boundary between the more ‘public areas’ and the semi-private area of the waiting space. This may be achieved by the shape of your area, or through the strategic placing of furniture and plants.
Organise your counselling room so that the spacial arrangements encourage communication. Preferably no permanent barrier such as a coffee table between you and your client, but provide some choices about personal space such as a chair that can be moved or cushions that can be held in a lap. Create a private space free from intrusion, where the client cannot be observed or overheard by others.
When furnishing your room and waiting space, consider the known effects on mood and the evoking of emotional states, of form, shape, texture, colour and smell.
The art therapist will tell you that there is a consistent theme to drawings of concepts such as anger, joy and peacefulness. Anger is most often expressed in dark, jagged, pointed forms, joy as soft, curving and circular forms, whereas light, horizontal lines indicate peacefulness or tranquility.
When furnishing consider form and shape and their implications. Use textures that feel and look good; that comfort or calm or stimulate tactile urges and connection to the physical self. Introduce scents or aromas for their arousing or relaxing effects or to counter unwanted or intrusive smells in the environment.
Whilst we all have individual preferences for different colours, it is also true that physiologically we respond in a universal way to certain colours. For example, red speeds metabolism and blue slows it down. Different colours are known to stimulate different glands in the body – yellow – the thyroid gland, blue – the pituary, red – male sexual, and violet – female sexual glands.
It will show if your rooms are furnished with consideration for these known impacts on the well-being of your client. Coupled with what is personal to you, your spaces will reflect thoughtfulness and care. At the same time consider whether your personal stamp on the room, leaves space for another to feel they also belong there. An overtly feminine or masculine room for instance, may not feel comfortable or welcoming to the opposite gender.
A well loved space radiates that love. Whilst the overall look of our Centre has been lovingly created by myself and my partners, the individual rooms have been claimed and furnished lovingly by the practitioners, while taking into consideration the whole space. The central spaces and gardens are claimed by, and cared for by us all. We are a collective of practitioners, and where possible all decisions about our environment and the Centre are made on a consensus basis.
This sense of ownership of the space has created community and inspires us all to invest our time and care in maintaining it. In turn, we have created a working environment which has atmosphere and is a pleasure to be in. A steady stream of clients drawn toward our creation seems to attest to that.
If you would like to learn more about Creating a Therapeutic Environment please contact Diana.