Stressors – Understanding our Environment

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Evidence-Based Design (Pt. 3)

Stress – Power of Perception

Stress is often defined as “the response of the body to threats and demands” 1. Though stress is psychologically triggered, it is directly linked to the nervous system which controls involuntary muscles such as the heart and stomach, as well as the skin 2. Stress is not only stimulated by our immediate condition but also by our anticipations of stressors, together with our expectations of them. Psychiatrist Hugh Freeman discussed the phenomenon of stress as being “largely non-specific in both its determinants and its consequences … enhancing susceptibility to disease in general rather than having a specific etiological role” 3. In layman’s terms, this means that an individual’s perception of an event is more significant in determining the level of stress on his or her wellbeing than the severity of the event itself. This then can have an indirect effect on overall health. Studies conducted by the World Health Organization in 1983 explored the negative effects of the built environment which do not stem from any specific virus or physical illness. This research coined the term Sick Building Syndrome or SBS4, a disorder recognized by the NHS (National Health Service) in the UK as appearing as a result. This stress manifests itself as a byproduct of both the built and natural environment and is categorized under the terms ‘environmental stressors’ and ‘social stressors’.

Environmental Stressors

Environmental stressors entail all built and naturally induced conditions that an individual may be subjected to. These include, but are not limited to, light, noise, air pollution, wind and seasonal change. While these all have the potential to pose an immediate threat to the health and/or well-being of a person, many of these may manifest themselves in a manner where their effects are intensified or diminished based on the unique nature of an individual 5. For example, irritation by a pollutant is direct. Physiological symptoms it may cause are less dependent on the interpretation of the stimulus and generally affect people in a similar manner. Stressors such as noise, on the other hand, are often very subjective. Objective sound may generate drastically different responses from person to person or vary with the change of context 6.

Social Stressors

A social stressor is an effect that is directly caused by other people. Noise produced by machinery, fans and computers, for example, are environmental and generally found to be less intrusive, whereas “the human voice is more disruptive of performance on many tasks than random noises of similar frequency and amplitude” 7. Social stressors often stem from a feeling of reduced control over social situations. This can be narrowed down to feeling a lack of engagement in society, an absence of smaller scale social interaction, crowding or isolation. For the most part, the social side of stressors is heavily subjective as it is dependent on context and individual personality. Outside of specialized studies, this is where the concept of control becomes most valuable in creating stress reducing environments.

Relationships, family, jobs and school can all induce an overwhelming sense of stress in our day to day lives. Why shouldn’t we design the environments in which these thrive in a way that seeks to counteract their negative impact? This strategic manipulation of stressors is what will result in people-centred design in architecture.


  1. Peter Pereira, ‘THE STRESS OF LIFE’, Understanding and managing stress <>
  2. ibid
  3. Hugh Freeman, ‘Environmental Stress and Psychiatric Disorder’, 2, (2006) <
  4. Ulrike Brandi Licht, ‘Lighting Design: Principles Implementation Case Studies’, pg. 9
  5. David Halpern, ‘Mental Health and the Built Environment’, Chpt. 2
  6. ibid
  7. David Halpern, ‘Mental Health and the Built Environment’, Chpt. 3

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Michaela Gomes

Graduating class of 2016 from The University of Sheffield’s undergraduate architecture program, Michaela now works as an architectural assistant at MGA inc. with plans of resuming studies for her masters degree in 2018. Her prime interests in the field include humanitarian and social architecture - focusing on the development of communities through people centric design. After obtaining her full qualification she plans on bringing some of these ideas to Barbados in hopes of improving government housing and urbanism in the island. Contact:

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