What are environmental factors, and how do the affect mental health?

Quick Answer
A person’s immediate physical environment can be a source of satisfaction or a source of stress, anxiety, and fear. Most environmental stressors tend to be minor but chronic, and often their severity becomes major only when environmental variables shift. As a result, environmental stressors tend only to be as serious in their consequences as those affected by their outcomes are vulnerable.
Expert Answers
enotes eNotes educator| Certified Educator

People’s behavior is a partial by-product of their life experiences in interacting with the physical environment. Environmental stressors—whether events or forces—may result in reactions that influence behavior and mental health. Individuals under environmental stress seek to maintain a state in which they are comfortable both physiologically and psychologically. As the living environment places stress on people, their adaptation and coping are driven by both physical and psychological stress reactions. If the stresses become a severe irritant due to chronic exposure and a failure to adapt, both physical and mental health may suffer.

Although specific environmental factors have not been shown to cause specific mental health conditions, many environmental factors are thought to cause stressful situations that induce latent neuroses or exacerbate existing ones, often resulting in damaging behaviors and mental issues. The effects of environmental factors on neurotic or organic mental illness are difficult to assess because intense life experiences linked to the environment are often associated with situations that in and of themselves involve stress and fear. Though considerable anecdotal evidence exists, no definitive evidence demonstrates that environmental factors induce either neurotic or psychotic illness. However, statistical evidence indicates that the rate of admissions to hospitals for certain mental health issues increases during or after exposure to certain environmental stressors.


Stress is the key component in understanding the relationship between environmental factors and mental health. Those in imposing environmental conditions experience stress, which makes adjustments necessary. Individuals seek to maintain a state in which they feel safe and comfortable. Environmental traumas and disasters, whether natural or human induced, occur in many forms. They produce feelings of terror, vulnerability, helplessness, uncertainty, loss of control, and threat to life, and create climates of short-term and long-term anticipatory stress regarding possible, probable, and imagined risks. Trauma suffered due to environmental stressors often creates the highest levels of anxiety and fear because it destroys the expectations of safety and trust that people have in their living environment. Even if an environmental stressor is dramatic and clearly evident, individuals vary in their assessment of and reaction to the threat. When environmental stressors endure over time, a person’s assessment of threats and risks becomes an ongoing process and can result in chronic stress to vulnerable, high-risk individuals, culminating in physiological and psychological impact.

When individuals are exposed to an environmental stressor, their bodies first respond by initiating coping mechanisms, generally preparing the body for fight or flight, and triggering physiological changes driven by the adrenal-cortical system. If the stress is repeated or extended for a long period of time, the individual may become exhausted to the point where adaptive reserves are depleted and both physical and mental breakdowns begin to occur. However, a person’s physical and mental reactions to environmental stressors are directly linked to the individual’s distinct perceptions of vulnerability and subsequent ability to either adapt or accept the conditions. Ultimately, anyone who has been physically stressed by severe environmental conditions and experiences psychological issues to the extent that the past trauma interferes in his or her daily life may be diagnosed as suffering from an environmentally induced mental disorder.

Environmental factors considered linked to mental health issues fall into two categories: natural and social conditions. Natural conditions include specific environmental stressors such as the number of hours of daylight, meteorological conditions, and natural disasters. Social conditions involve factors such as crowding, crime, war, living and working space, and noise. Much of the psychological concern about the links between environmental stressors and mental health are directed exclusively toward understanding and treating the aftermath of traumatic events. However, it is important to understand that while human behavior resulting from the trauma of stressful environmental conditions may lead to mental disorders, this is not solely a psychological phenomenon but is usually a direct result of physiological conditions stressing the body.

Natural Conditions

Some relationship appears to exist between mental well-being and meteorological variables: Fluctuations in atmospheric conditions are often correlated to changes in people’s mental health. Changes in the weather seem to have strong effects on mood in general and depressive states in particular; with the most recognized association being a combination of high temperatures, low barometric pressure, and cloud cover. Psychiatrists recognize that some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seasonal affective disorder is a group of depressive symptoms occurring in late autumn and winter and seeming to retreat in spring. The disorder is predominate in women living in higher latitudes and is linked to a shortage of sunlight. The counterbalance to seasonal affective disorder is that statistically more psychiatric emergencies occur on sunny, humid, hot days. Although sunshine seems to improve mood, excessive heat and humidity bring on irritating stresses, increasing levels of aggression. In certain geographic regions, wind is believed to be the cause of symptoms of mental illness. The Santa Ana and Chinook winds of North America, Foehn and Sirocco winds of Europe and North Africa, and Sharav wind of Israel are routinely linked to depression, nervousness, higher neuroticism, and violent crimes. Levels of sunshine, changes in temperature, and exposure to winds all result from changes in barometric pressure. Anecdotal evidence suggests a correlation between lower barometric pressures and increased cases of depression and suicide.

Environmental disasters are severe stressors that throw lives into chaos and fill survivors with terror of the unexpected and fear of loss, injury, or death. Individuals exposed to traumatic environmental events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, dust storms, volcanic eruptions, floods, tsunamis, firestorms, landslides, and avalanches have an increased exposure to a wide range of fear-inducing cues. The elements of trauma exposure—including threats to life, physical injury, exposure to grotesque sights, the collapse of social identity, loss of property and familiar environments, and violent and sudden death of loved ones, witnessed or not—may result in cases of both acute and post-traumatic stress disorders. In many instances, post-disaster stress disorders are intensified by manifestations of religious fears devoid of factual connection to the event.

Social Conditions

Social conditions attributed to producing environmental stressors and resulting mental health issues involve the actions and perceived intentions of other people. Human-made disasters, failed social experiments, politics, military conflicts, and intolerance can all lead to environmental stressors affecting a population’s psychology. In an attempt to limit certain human-induced environmental stressors, the fields of environmental psychology and environmental design have been developed. Environmental psychology suggests that one’s living environment and its context can to a great extent provide an explanation for personal behaviors. The fundamental theories of environmental design suggest that people have an inherent need for personal space and territory and that specific aspects of constructed physical environments such as dimensions, open space, crowding, color, and landscape are all environmental stressors affecting an individual’s sense of well-being and in turn affecting mental health. Research suggests that the design of living environments matters and has significant and demonstrable effects on behavior and psychological health. Living environments induce or reduce annoyances, which in turn establish the amount of stress with which an individual’s coping and adaptive abilities must deal. Failure to adapt or cope leads to additional stress and frustrations that may eventually lead to certain psychopathological symptoms: This pathology is largely connected to the person’s method of coping.

More than half the people on Earth live in cities. These urban environments are all characterized by increased population density, which is a strong environmental stressor, resulting in pollution, noise, fear of crime, and crowding. These urban stressors appear to affect mental health in some people, but they do occur equally across all cultures or urban settings. High population density is associated with a lack of physical space, pollution, a lack of certain resources, the close proximity of others, physical and social incivilities, and often uncontrolled interaction with strangers. For some people, living in an environment rife with continuous physical irritations and unregulated interactions causes cognitive and social overload. Such overload often results in heightened frustration, anxiety, and discomfort, which in turn may result in diminished mental health.

If pollution of any kind is continuous and creates ongoing physiological stresses, it could ultimately result in biological responses leading to the development of clinically identifiable mental health symptoms. As with all types of pollutants, noise is a physical irritant. Though numerous studies suggest relationships between exposure to high levels of occupational noise and the development of neurosis and between the presence of environmental noise and mental health, no definitive evidence exists that noise can induce neurotic or psychotic illness. Anecdotal evidence does suggest exposure to excessive noise may result in a variety of negative biological responses.

The main stressor resulting from living in an environment in which crime is likely is fear. Fear of crime and its associated violence can become chronic and intrusive and can increase the sense of helplessness among people, raising anxiety to the point that it compromises lifestyle. Those who have been victims of crime, especially violent crimes, may develop acute or post-traumatic stress disorders, or phobias.

The oldest social condition that is an environmental stressor is war. As with certain crimes, war is an intentional act of violence, and its main component as an environmental stressor is purpose-driven fear. The trauma to which both combatants and noncombatants are exposed during war is similar to the trauma of a devastating natural disaster—terror of the unexpected, sudden death, loss, horrific visual stimuli, disassociation, dislocation, and panic. Unlike the short-term initial shock and stress of most natural disasters, the environmental stressors of war may last continuously for years, subjecting victims to extensive periods of constant physiological and psychological pressure. The study of mental health issues in both surviving civilians and soldiers of wars has resulted in the acknowledgment, understanding, and diagnosis of acute and post-traumatic stress disorders and development of appropriate treatments.


Fullerton, C. S., and R. J. Ursano, eds. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Acute and Long-Term Responses to Trauma and Disaster. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1997. Print.

Haggett, Ali. Desperate Housewives, Neuroses, and the Domestic Environment, 1945–1970. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012. Print.

Hutchison, Elizabeth D. Essentials of Human Behavior: Integrating Person, Environment, and the Life Course. Los Angeles: Sage, 2013. Print.

Kopec, D. Environmental Psychology for Design. Chicago: Fairchild, 2006. Print.

Leach, J. Survival Psychology. New York: New York University Press, 1994. Print.

Lopez, Russ. The Built Environment and Public Health. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012. Print.

Ursano, R. J., et al. Individual and Community Responses to Trauma and Disaster: The Structure of Human Chaos. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Print.

Van der Kolk, B. A., et al. Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society. New York: Guilford Press, 1996. Print.

Williams, S. W. Environment and Mental Health. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994. Print.