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Environment and Stress

It is an undeniable fact that all of us face some degree of stress almost every day and we have all used the statement ‘I am under great stress’ at one point or another. The same situation may affect different people differently. So stress, to a great extent, is what we perceive it to be. Stress in a person is caused by external factors as well as internal factors. Among the different external sources responsible for our stress, the environment has a great influence and a big role to play.

Many people associate environmental sources of stress with urban life. They think of noise, pollution, crowding, fear of crime, and personal alienation as being associated with city living. However, adverse environmental factors are not limited to large metropolitan communities alone, although they are frequently more concentrated there. Rural life can also be noisy, polluted, hot, cold, humid, or even crowded, with many people living in a one or two-room dwelling. The noise from farm machinery is often louder than any experienced by urban dwellers. And although air and water pollution usually originate in urban or industrial settings, they may then disperse to other parts of the world. While environmental sources of stress effect both rural and urban settings, factors such as crowding, noise, pollution, fear of crime, and personal alienation combine to produce an urban environment that is stressful to many city dwellers. Each source of stress needs to be considered separately, as well as a combination of these stressors as they occur in a natural context.


Experiments with animals have revealed a variety of adverse effects from high-density living conditions, but research on human health is not as clear. When rats live in ideal conditions, they breed rapidly, and overcrowding occurs but does not progress to “standing room only.” Rat behavior changes with population density. Male rats form dominance hierarchies, and the dominant rats become more territorial and aggressive. Infant mortality increases, and sexual behavior changes, resulting in a stable, high population level but with higher levels of violence and poorer social integration. Crowding causes social, emotional, and health changes in rats, but experiments to demonstrate similar effects in humans are not ethically acceptable. Therefore many of the studies with humans have been short-term laboratory studies or naturalistic studies in crowded environments. A distinction between the concepts of population density and crowding helps in understanding the effects of crowding on humans. In 1972, Daniel Stools defined population density as a physical condition in which a large population occupies a limited space. Crowding, however, is a psychological condition that arises from a person’s perception of the high-density environment in which that person is confined. Thus, density is necessary for crowding but does it automatically produce the feeling of being crowded. The crush of people in the lobby of a theater may not be experienced as crowding, despite the extremely high population density.


Pollution is a second environmental condition that may produce stress and pollution affects health directly as well as through increased stress. Although pollution of the environment has become an important concern, it is not a recent phenomenon. Both air and water pollution predate history. Modern technology has given us more pollutants and speeded their dispersion, but it did not originate the practice of adding harmful substances to air, water and soil. Modern technology has increased not only the amount of pollution but also the potential for accidents in the storing or handling of dangerous nuclear or chemical pollutants. An accident with toxic chemicals could create extreme feelings of helplessness because such accidents are beyond the control of many of the affected people. Indeed, these accidents may occur quite randomly, as in a train derailment or a tanker accident, and thus are quite unpredictable. Furthermore, the fear of accidents may pervade the entire neighborhoods near industries where dangerous chemicals are used or manufactured, providing long-lasting stress for residents. People who are concerned about air pollution in their community frequently do not complain because they believe their protests will do no good; that is, they feel helpless. Thus pollution is a source of stress and its health effects are a direct result of their toxic effects as well as indirect effects through increasing stress levels.


In addition to crowding and pollution, exposure to noise may produce stress. Noise is considered a type of pollution because it is a disturbing unwanted stimulus that intrudes into a person’s environment. Evidence also shows a relationship between noise and health problems, but again, the health effects of noise might be direct influences of noise rather than indirect effects produced by increased stress. In addition, noise is quite difficult to define in any objective way. Definitions are invariably subjective, because noise is a sound that a person does not want to hear. Noise can be loud, soft, or somewhere between. One person’s music is another person’s noise. Defined by the objective criterion of volume, noise can produce detrimental health effects. A study has already proved that workers exposed to high levels of noise reported more nausea, headaches, impotence, argumentativeness, and moodiness than workers exposed to less noise. In addition, children living with high noise were less persistent in performing a challenging cognitive task and reported more annoyance with the noise in their community.

Urban Press

Crowding, pollution and noise can occur in any social context, but these factors are a commonplace combination in the urban environment. Psychologists used the term urban press to refer to the many environmental stressors that affect city living. Commuting hassles and fear of crime add to the urban dwellers’ experience with crowding, pollution and noise. It has also been noted that not only are all these sources of stress combined in city life, but that they tend to be beyond personal control. Laboratory studies on noise and pollution indicate that lack of control tends to make people feel more stressed, which may apply to these factors in the urban environment.Crime is not unique to urban life, but fear of crime has become part of the urban environment and these fears can affect behavior, such as installing locks on the doors and bars on the windows and avoiding locations perceived as high – crime areas. Other research has shown more complex relationships between newspaper reports and people’s fear of crime, but these researchers found that the information in official crime statistics was mediated through newspaper coverage. Such studies demonstrate the power of the press to increase or decrease the fear of crime. When people fear victimization, their behavior changes and some changes can lead people to withdraw from their communities. When people restrict activities that might take them into areas considered dangerous, they restrict their social interactions.

Managing Environmental Stress

From the moment we wake up in the morning to the time we go to sleep at night, we experience a host of minor irritations and frustrations. These can be very small, and include things like getting stuck in a traffic jam, suffering a backache from an uncomfortable chair, being distracted by gossiping colleagues, or wasting time finding things in a cluttered, disorganized environment. Even though these frustrations are small, each one either triggers a small release of stress hormones into our bodies or reduces our overall sense of happiness. This creates a background level of stress in our lives, which is then exacerbated by the serious stressful incidents we deal with elsewhere within this site. By managing the small stresses in our life, we can reduce the impact of the major stresses when they occur. In looking at managing environmental stress, we will look at the stress you experience throughout your working day, for these are the stresses well under our control. The five stress reduction techniques are as follows:

1. Make the Air Play Fair

Control the air humidity in your environment to a level that’s comfortable for you. Too dry or very humid air can produce unpleasant environments. Air humidity can even produce various physical symptoms. Dehumidifiers can take control of the air quality to make rooms feel more livable. If needed, add a few plants to provide a bit of moisture.

2. Lose the Clutter

Rid yourself of all the clutter that surrounds you. Improve your time management skills so that you can prioritize what “stuff” is important and what isn’t important. If you are not immediately working on an item, move it out of line of sight. Not only will your environment become more visually pleasing and relaxing, but you’ll avoid the stress of constantly searching for important items among the excess.

3. Get Rid of Static noise

Everyday we are experiencing “static” noise. Phones ringing, computers dinging, radios/ TVs playing, co-workers interrupting, etc., are all examples of static noises. These noises create stressors that impede our abilities to think and ultimately create work and life solutions. They also can take their toll over time on our moods and energy. Do what you can to reduce background and unwanted noise. Turn off radios and TVs when not using them with purpose. Reduce or turn off all computer noises if they are not necessary. Use noise reduction materials such as partitions, curtains, etc., to quiet your environment. When you can, take a “silence is golden” break in a quiet room to recharge your emotional and mental batteries.

4. Make Your Workspace Work for You

Use good ergonomic techniques in your workplace to reduce the risk of repetitive strain injury, eye strain, back pain, and other uncomfortable symptoms. Pay particular attention to your stair, desk, and computer setup since most likely you will be using these items the most. The correct setup of these items will save you years of wrist, elbow, back, and eye pain and strain.

5. Create an Empowerment Zone

Create at work or at home a retreat for yourself to reenergize yourself both mentally and emotionally. Not having space for this zone is not an excuse. It can be a private room or your favorite chair or desk. Include items such as plants, books, relaxing music, and pictures to create an environment of peace. Use this area to think and visualize the positive things in your life. You might want to think of future situations in your life and how you will master them for your benefit. Use this area for carrying out important tasks whenever possible.

Go apply these techniques today! Apply what works for you and reduce your environmental stress. Dr. H.S. Pal, is a leading Stress Management Consultant and author of Best seller book, ‘Tit For Tat to Treat For Tat’. He can be contacted at; drpal262@yahoo.com