The Psychology of Environmental SensitivitiesI’m sitting in a small breakfast joint just outside Washington, D.C. with the family, on one of those intense and humid July mornings.

As we dig into our grub, I begin to hear a classical music piece playing in the background. It sounded like impending doom, pounding down on my eardrums. And while I certainly have a propensity for being dramatic at times (could you tell?), this was a full-out battle of sensitivity vs. environment. My mood was instantly altered; I felt as if I was trapped in Les Miserables and was no longer interested in plowing through my omelet. My parents, however, barely gave the café’s musical selection any thought.

I’ve been told by others, and I concur, that I’m sensitive to my surroundings. And, in truth, that appears to be the case in my life.

In this particular instance, my emotional state was definitely affected, giving way to genuine discontentment. Although it’s not a revelation that music affects our frame of mind (and we all have our own preferences of what we like and dislike, along with what we feel “suits” us at that moment), it’s interesting to see how music not of our choosing affects us.

While some find classical music to be calming, I find certain pieces to be downright stressful. If a pop song was on in the waiting room at a doctor’s office, I’d probably feel more at ease with that backdrop, as opposed to violins crescendoing.

Sensitivities to our environment are necessary to our survival, as stated in this article. Even retailers and the hospitality industry — two things which didn’t exist in caveman days — have to be mindful of environmental factors, in order to provide a positive experience and promote comfort, safety and entertainment.

Ambiance can affect your mood, too. One may find fluorescent lighting in a restaurant to be irritating, but a dimly lit spot to be romantic or cozy. Color plays a significant role as well. One might feel relaxed in a dentist’s office with baby-blue walls and not so much so in a dental office painted darker hues.

“We react on multiple levels of association with colors – there are social or cultural levels as well as personal relationships with particular colors,” Leslie Harrington, executive director of The Color Association of the United States told the Huffington Post.

“You also have an innate reaction to color. For example, when you wear red, it does increase your heart rate. It is a stimulating color. This goes back to caveman days of fire and danger and alarm.”

According to Harrington, blue is psychologically soothing (perhaps there are associations with the sky), and yellow contains both positive and negative connotations (there’s a happy mood inspired from sunshine, but also sickness and jaundice).

In dealing with something I find unpleasant, it helps me to understand that the negative reaction is from an external stimulus, not an internal stressor. At least with this realization, I’m able to distinguish the root of what I’m feeling. And while you can’t always avoid the source, you can experience the environment’s consequences without letting it consume you.

Maybe the way to help cope with these sensitivities is similar to advice about aiding situational anxiety: sit with it. Allow the energy to pass through, while recognizing its impermanence.

Sensitivities in our environment do leave an emotional impact, but it’s not a lost cause. If you ever are coerced into listening to an annoying classical number, you could sing some Springsteen or Taylor Swift in your head — works for me.



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    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 15 Aug 2013
    Published on All rights reserved.

APA Reference
Suval, L. (2013). The Psychology of Environmental Sensitivities. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 3, 2015, from


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