The Role of Physical Environment in Stress Reactivity
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This study examined the role of the physical environment (restorative v. non-restorative) in physiological and psychological reactivity to a cognitive stressor and investigated the potential for hostile personality to moderate this process. Globally, a strikingly high prevalence of cardiovascular disease as well as affective disorders such as anxiety presents enormous costs and concern for human health. Aside from behavioral, physical, and genetic risk factors, stress and hostility are leading psychosocial contributors to these conditions. Although many factors affect stress reactivity in the collaborative, biopsychosocial construction of health, one essential albeit often overlooked contributor is the physical environment. The physical environment consists of architectural, ambient, and design features that may be either built or natural. Through psycho-evolutionary cognitive and emotional processes, certain environmental characteristics considered to be restorative in nature are thought to influence emotional and physiological states through the mechanisms of attention restoration and stress reduction. Because the stress-related illness burden continues to grow, it is increasingly important to understand and target the processes by which environmental surroundings influence health. Fifty-nine participants at a large university were randomly assigned to either a restorative or non-restorative environment condition in this experimental design. It was hypothesized that participants in the restorative environment would show less affective and physiological stress reactivity and greater recovery than those in the non-restorative environment. Psychological and physiological changes were measured at baseline, during reactivity to a cognitive stressor, and at recovery. Participants were assessed with regard to psychological variables including positive/negative affect, state anxiety, and hostility while physiological changes in blood pressure and heart rate were recorded. Repeated measures ANOVAs and ANCOVAs were used to test the null hypotheses of the major research questions. Ancillary analyses were conducted using meditational regression. Tests for statistical significance revealed that changes in systolic blood pressure and heart rate, but not diastolic blood pressure, interacted by condition over time indicating that the restorative environment was more effective at suppressing reactivity and promoting recovery. Affective analyses revealed non-significant interactions for both negative affect and positive affect, but showed emerging patterns that would otherwise support the hypothesis. Also, a significant hostility (high v. low) by anxiety interaction was found. Although hostility did not significantly moderate effects by condition, a pattern emerged which, if significant, would support the hypothesis. An ancillary meditational regression analysis suggested that effects of hostility on anxiety may be mediated by sensitivity to the environment. Mixed findings offered weak albeit partial support for the insight that the environment meaningfully affects stress reactivity. The findings of this study merit future research into environmental stress reactivity and moderating personality variables. Implications for the design of healthcare and other environments are discussed.