Darkness Falls & Spirits Rise
Fresh out of grad school with my master’s in mental health counseling, my first job as a therapist was at a community mental health center: A not-for-profit community mental health center, which you might imagine operates on a shoe-string. So it was not surprising that my office was a glorified broom closet. The carpeting was unraveling. The walls were paper thin and decorated with wallpaper in a Southwestern theme that had been out of fashion for decades by the time I claimed this space as my own. When I turned on the light switch, I was met with the deafening buzz and blinding wattage of fluorescent lights.
My first instinct was to flip the “off” switch. But this broom closet had no windows and hence, no other source for light. Yeah, as a therapist, it is my job to “bring to light” whatever demons plague my clients. Yet those impossibly bright bulbs seemed more like tools for interrogating a terrorist, or maybe conducting a root canal. This atmosphere was hardly conducive to creating a “safe space” for clients to reveal their deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings.
So off to Target I went, on a mission to purchase a desk lamp. Since I was not being paid for my services as a post-graduate intern, I chose one for $9 on clearance, screwed in a 75-watt soft-white bulb and plugged that baby in. Voila! Instant mood lighting, whether the mood is anxiety, depression, grief, sadness, fear or All of The Above.
Isn't a Therapist Supposed to Enlighten Clients?
A coworker happened to pass by after I installed my new lighting system. “It’s so DARK in there! You look like you’re working in a cave. Why don’t you turn on the overhead lights?” I smiled politely, inwardly beginning to question whether my clients would wonder the same thing. Maybe they would think I was weird and the dark office a little creepy.
Turns out, I have received a 100% positive response rate from clients since I made the switch. I know this because nobody has ever said, “Would you please turn on the light?” Also because most first-timers stop suddenly as they cross my threshold, look around, and say something like “It’s so warm and cozy in here!”
Researchers Have a "Lightbulb Moment"
Apparently, my instincts all those years ago align with the latest science. A recent study “The Incandescent Affect: Turning on the Hot Emotional System with Bright Light” published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, suggests that under the harsh lighting typical of offices, schools and places of business we feel our feelings with much more intensity, sort of like we’re under the spotlight. Our perceptions are exaggerated: the air temperature feels warmer than it is, other people are perceived as more aggressive, and our own emotions can more quickly reach a state of hyper-arousal and overwhelm.
Science also tells us that we are programmed biologically so that when darkness falls, the nervous system begins to produce melatonin, which naturally calms the body. Darkness is a natural cue that it’s sleepy-time, after all.
No, my clients don’t fall asleep in session. But they do tell me they feel calmer and safer in my office, even though sometimes they don’t connect that feeling with the dimmer lights. The cool part of it for me is that over the years, I have noticed that working in partnership with a client in a darkened room has become a powerful way to shine a light on whatever it is that’s bringing someone down.
Dutch researchers in the 1970s developed the concept of Snoezelen, a blend of two Dutch words meaning "to explore and relax." This philosophy gave rise to the development of "Sensory Rooms" (also known as tranquility rooms, relaxation rooms, or multi-sensory rooms), which serve as a therapeutic tool for people who have difficulty regulating their emotions and behavior, including people with autism, dementia, brain injuries, those in palliative care, and even in some prisons.
Just so you know, that picture above is of my current office. No more broom closets for me and my clients! Although the office features two lovely windows overlooking the Main Street thoroughfare in Weston Town Center, I never open the blinds.
Valerie Zaffos is a licensed mental health counselor in private practice in Weston, Florida. She works with teens and adults, individuals and couples. She's big on mood lighting -- and lightening moods.