The value of space…and the cost of congestion

by Ezra Hewing | 26 Jun 2019

Suffolk Mind’s Ezra Hewing looks at the value of space, and how it can be a barrier or an enabler to getting key emotional needs met.

Why do we value space? And why do we need a space to call our own? When we become stressed, nature is trying to speak to us. Nature is telling us that our emotional needs require attention: perhaps to feel safe and in control of our lives, to feel connected to others and to belong to communities or to have purpose or privacy.

Space can be the place where me meet emotional needs or think about how to meet them. But the wrong kind of space can stop us from meeting needs. So if we find ourselves screaming, “I need space!” nature is pushing us to find a healthier space to be in.

The influential author Marie Kondo, whose books and Netflix series encourage people to let go of what is not important, tells us “it is essential to create a quiet space in which to evaluate things in your life.” Having space where we are free from demands on our attention allows us to be ourselves. Kondo reminds us, “The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”

Slowing down, and creating space to reflect, allows us to give attention to what really matters. Are we giving attention to important relationships? Are we following what gives our lives meaning and helps us to grow? Having space allows us to give attention to these questions, even if the answers take time to find. Healthy space gives us healthy headspace.

Finding space and time can be challenging for parents juggling the demands of work and arriving home to be met with the needs of small children – or coping with these demands all day and trying to carve out some time to ourselves. This changes as children get older of course. Teenagers managing the moods that come with fluctuating hormones and brain changes need space to be alone and reflect. And they won’t spare their parents’ feelings to let them know when space is what they need.

And at work, personal space can slip away in open plan offices, the world of ‘hot desking’ and a culture of eating our lunch in front of a computer screen. While it can be nice to share space with neighbours on adjacent desks, having private space to focus and think about the task in front of us can become a near impossible challenge.

So we need private space, but not too much. Prisoners living in isolation, who may be alone for twenty three hours a day, can experience stress, anxiety, depression, hallucinations and develop eating disorders which reduce life expectancy. And of course we can have too much space too.

Astronauts describe how living in space can be mentally stressful, on top of the physical effects. When no longer working against the force of the earth’s gravity, astronauts can lose up to twenty percent of their muscle mass in just eleven days.

Similarly, while being overstretched and stressed is bad for us, sometimes we need to step outside of our comfort zones – and into a more challenging space. To feel that we are alive and growing we need to be stretched to learn new skills.

Where can we go if we become overwhelmed by the stress of unmet emotional needs? How can space make us feel better? The architect Arthur Erickson held that “space has always been the spiritual dimension of architecture,” and that it was space, and not so much the physical structure of a building, which moves us. When entering Quay Place Heritage & Wellbeing Centre, the eye of the visitor is immediately drawn up towards vaulted beams as a wide, beautiful space opens above them. The visitor’s vision is lifted away from worries and concerns which may have brought them through the large wooden door – whether a business meeting or a therapeutic session.

Once inside, visitors might meet with others in community groups. Busy workers might meet in a space that’s more open, engaging, relaxing and interesting than their office or usual board room. Mothers and babies find a safe space to connect with each other. Discussion groups living well with dementia through sharing memories of a time and space where they enjoyed sports. Visitors might come to speak to a counsellor in a private space, to explore challenges they face in their lives. Or people might come just to sit alone in peace for a time.

Eight hundred years ago, the Persian philosopher Rumi, and in the nineties’ the best-selling poet in the US, wrote that, “The universe is not outside of you. Look inside yourself.” A safer, quieter, calmer space, away from the bustle of busy lives, can allow us to enter inner space and reflect for a time. And when we do, we can explore solutions to problems. We can form connections between the learning of the past and present, and ponder the future. We can find the space to change how we meet emotional needs for the better.

Perhaps, in the future, and as we learn more about the importance of meeting emotional needs for mental health and wellbeing, we will become more aware of space, how it shapes us and how we can shape it.

by Ezra Hewing

Ezra Hewing is Head of Education at Suffolk Mind and a Human Givens Therapist. Since joining Suffolk Mind in 2009, he has grown our busy workplace wellbeing service, training frontline mental health workers, doctors, nurses, substance abuse workers, members of the emergency services and heads of organisations, amongst others, in how best to understand and support emotionally healthy workplaces. He holds an MSc in the psychology and neuroscience of mental health from the internationally renowned Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience, King’s College, London, where he researched REM sleep and mental ill health, with a focus on the symptoms of schizophrenia.

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