The Healing Environment

Why hospitals aren't necessarily set up to help you heal, and what you can do about it

Medically reviewed in June 2021

Recuperating in a hospital, nursing home, or other healthcare facility can be a stressful experience. Ambient noise, light, smells, and crowds can leave you feeling helpless and tired. And you must often relinquish control of many of the things you normally do -- even when recovering at home. All of this can cause psychological stress that may actually slow the healing process.

Without a doubt, getting plenty of rest, eating right, taking your medicine, and following your doctor's recovery instructions help the healing process following surgery or trauma. But those measures don't always help you deal with the stress of being a patient. Is there more to getting back on your feet than following your doctor's orders?

Soothing Your Psyche
New research suggests some innovative avenues to wellness and recovery that may be a good complement to traditional postsurgery care and may help get you back on your feet faster by minimizing psychological distress. The road to recovery may include walking in a lush garden, listening to a Mozart concerto, or even spending time with your favorite furry friend.

The next time you are on the mend, follow your doctor's orders. Then, for peace of mind and, possibly, faster healing, consider these innovative ways to soothe your psyche:

1. Get a room with a view. An outside view -- preferably a green, leafy one -- may help you heal faster, according to research. Patients who rest by a window with a natural view use less pain medication and have quicker recoveries than patients who stare at blank walls.

The results can be even more significant if patients are allowed to get their hands dirty and cultivate a garden as part of their recovery program. Visiting and working in a hospital garden has been shown to increase social participation, health, well-being, and life satisfaction in patients recovering from such trauma as brain damage and cardiac surgery. And gardening also improves dexterity and motor skills.

If you can't see the garden, bring it indoors with plants, flowers, or pictures of nature. Just viewing nature may help recovery.

The Color of Health
Research shows that color can have a significant effect on health. Some shades of red can reduce the perception of arthritis pain, and other shades of red may induce epileptic seizures in some people. Bedroom yellows can interfere with REM sleep, and blues may calm aggressive patients in the emergency room.

2. Fill your days with music. The next time you are recovering, you may want to keep a collection of relaxing CDs within easy reach.

Music has been used by countless cultures for thousands of years to alleviate suffering and enhance well-being. Today, music therapy is widely recognized as a noninvasive, cost-effective complement to pain medication.

Although some studies suggest that music is a mere distraction from pain, others conclude that listening to music causes physiological changes in patients, including lowered blood pressure and reduced heart rate. There also is evidence that patients who listen to music before or after a medical procedure are likely to be more relaxed, perceive less pain, and require less medication than patients who don't listen to music.

If you have access to music during your recovery, a good choice is classical music, which has been shown to decrease tension, or New Age tunes, which produce feelings of deep relaxation.

To learn more about music therapy, or to find a licensed provider near you, visit the American Music Therapy Association.

What You Hear Matters
Part of the theory behind music therapy is that what you hear during recovery matters to your health. If you can't have music where you recover, try to alleviate general hospital stress with earplugs or earphones to block out the sounds of hospital machinery and the conversations of doctors or other patients.

Some facilities provide music therapy as part of a treatment plan. But because it is a relatively new option, it may not be offered in your area, or it may not be covered by insurance. Check with your provider to determine if music therapy is included in your insurance policy.

3. Spend time with Spot. Animals bring a special kind of love and comfort to many people. Hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and healthcare facilities are taking note of a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting animals help patients recover.

One study performed at UCLA Medical Center tested the physical and psychological impact of animal-assisted therapy on heart failure patients. The test subjects were divided into three groups: those who were visited by a volunteer and a dog, those who were visited by only a volunteer, or those who were not visited at all. Anxiety dropped 24% in the group with the animal and the volunteer. In the group with only the volunteer, anxiety dropped 10%. Anxiety levels remained the same in the group with no visitation.

Although most hospitals still won't allow family pets, if you are recovering at home, feel free to spend lots of time petting your favorite four-legged friend.

Remember Your Spirit
Following doctor's orders for your physical care is a great way to help speed the healing process. But don't forget about your mental well-being. The mind-body connection is strong, and finding ways to soothe your psyche is an important part of healing.

More Ways to Feel Better
Keep it simple. Remove clutter and organize all medications and treatment paraphernalia.

Give it meaning. Place sentimental objects or photos of loved ones close at hand for a sense of familiarity and comfort.

Make it pretty. Hang works of art on the walls, and surround yourself with soothing colors.

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