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Sensory Spaces - The Importance of Chill-Out Zones

Updated: Aug 7, 2019

* By Andrew Cowie

I feel like I've spent much of the past twelve months living in a building site. Last year I took the long overdue decision to completely renovate my entire house and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Steeped in character and history, my cottage in Dunfermline, "The Neuk" (named after the Scottish word for a corner or nook), is a rather unique property which started its life as a coach house and stables for the tavern next door before being converted into a domestic dwelling around 100 years ago. In its former life it was the last stop and watering hole for weary southbound travellers wanting to rest their horses before continuing onward to cross the River Forth at Kincardine by ferry. Despite having lived in The Neuk for 20 years, I'd been reluctant to tamper with the property for fear of spoiling its unique charm. But after relaunching my own life with a vengeance last year, I decided the time had finally come to give my home a much-needed makeover too. After all, if I could regenerate successfully and rise like a phoenix from the ashes then my house surely could as well. The experience hasn't been entirely stress-free and there have been plenty of moments over the course of the past year when I've wondered what the hell I'd taken on. Living in a building site isn't much fun and neither is the back-breaking task of constantly moving furniture and possessions about from one room to another to accommodate the next phase of work. But as I've mentioned in previous blogs, new life and growth seldom comes about without some degree of destruction, disruption and a breaking down of the old. The past has to die to make way for a bright new future.

Changing Rooms: DIY mastermind Amanda Kirk sets about gutting my living room...because she can!

This past week has seen the final finishing touches applied to my home refurbishment project and looking back now I have no regrets. As traumatic as the process has sometimes been, the transformation has been incredible and the benefits immeasurable. The property has lost none of its historic charm and character but has nevertheless been completely refreshed and enhanced with modern appliances and smart technology to seamlessly blend the old with the new. Every room has been redecorated and significantly refurnished, a new bathroom and kitchen have been installed and a garden office added to the property to serve as the headquarters of Phoenix Coaching & Therapy. Needless to say, I couldn't have done any of this alone and some massive shout-outs are due to those who've helped along the way, not least my good friend and neighbour Amanda Kirk who not only talked me into the renovations in the first place but then proceeded to throw her formidable DIY expertise, enthusiasm and limitless energy at the project with all the force of a hurricane. For months she laboured atop ladders, stripping walls, sanding, painting, glossing and drilling, putting up with my not infrequent meltdowns and general incompetence and assuring me that the end result would be worth all the pain. She was right. It took a few months (and sleepless nights!) but by the turn of the year all the public rooms and bedrooms had been completely redecorated and were virtually unrecognisable.

All hands on deck: Even Amanda's daughter Keren lent a much-needed helping hand painting my living room!


George Croll and grandson Woody prepare to install a partition wall inside The Phoenix's Nest.

After eight months of living in a topsy-turvey house, phase two of the renovations was a relatively painless and stress-free experience by comparison. For the construction of my new garden office, named The Phoenix's Nest, I turned the entire project over to my good friend George Croll of local property maintenance firm Henry George Croll & Son. I had a firm vision in my mind of exactly what I was looking for - a versatile space which could be used as both a therapy room for one-to-one client work and also as a classroom for hosting training courses - and George realised that vision right down to the very last detail. George is a master craftsman who looks after his customers and always goes the extra mile to ensure everything is completed to the very highest standards. The process was not without an element of destruction again though. In order to create the space required it was necessary to demolish the existing garden shed, remove an overgrown bush, flatten a rockery and uproot a tree which had died several years before, so that the entire area could then be levelled and concreted over to provide a firm base upon which to build the new structure. I couldn’t have erected this building had I not been willing to destroy what was there before. New life was created out of the death and destruction of the old, just as I described in my previous blog Regeneration - The Death and Resurrection Show. Sometimes we simply have to be prepared to let go of the past in order to be able to move forward - a regenerative process symbolised by the image and myth of the phoenix.

The Phoenix's Nest in all its finished glory serves as my company headquarters, therapy room and training room.


My new kitchen, supplied and fitted by local firm Vizzini.

The final pieces of the renovation jigsaw were the installation of a new kitchen and bathroom and in order to minimise disruption and simplify the process I decided to turn to the same firm to design and fit both rooms together. Vizzini Bathrooms & Kitchens, based in Aberdour Road, Dunfermline, did me proud from start to finish. What could quite easily have turned into another major source of stress turned out instead to be an absolutely seamless process from start to finish. This family-run firm, which is now further expanding its impressive portfolio of services to include bedrooms, creates bespoke designs using state-of-the-art 3D software to show you exactly how a finished room is going to look. With their friendly and attentive service, and highly skilled and professional installation teams, Vizzini inspired confidence throughout and the transformation they have effected in my property is breathtaking. Last month Vizzini hosted a special event in its Dunfermline showroom featuring Swiss bathrooom designer and manufacturer Geberit and award-winning blogger Emily Murray of interior design firm The Pink House. Emily, a former national squad gymnast who spent her late twenties working as a sponsored freerunner and stuntwoman in Cannes-nominated films, adverts and live events, has recently published a book, Pink House Living - a practical guide to decorating with pink - in which she draws on her recent interiors projects in London and Edinburgh to guide the reader through their own rose-tinted renovations. An experienced lifestyle journalist, Emily has gained considerable acclaim for her hit Instagram account @pinkhouseliving and has even died her hair pink to ensure instant brand recognition with her Pink House blog. A week after meeting Emily I took a leaf out of her book by having red flames streaked through my hair to tie in with my own Phoenix branding. Nothing wrong with a bit of self-promotion! Headlining the event at Vizzini in Dunfermline, Emily spoke about a subject close to my own heart - the importance of having therapeutic spaces within the home and at least one designated room with a relaxing stress-free vibe. This ethos was at the heart of my own home refurbishment project, particularly when it came to designing The Phoenix's Nest in which I wanted to create the most relaxing and therapeutic environment possible for my clients. However, my sensory awareness wasn't confined to just the therapy room but also spilled over into the rest of the house where I took care to inject vibrant, mood-enhancing colours into the decor. I also attached great importance to the bathroom, incorporating features such as underfloor heating and a jacuzzi bath to ensure that extra level of comfort and luxury. Emily, who focuses on the topic of bathrooms in her most recent blog entitled Breaking the Loo Taboo, expressed the view that a luxurious bathroom experience shouldn't be something you only get to enjoy when staying in a five-star hotel. After all, why wait until you're on holiday to pamper yourself? By making your own bathroom into more of a "spa experience", you can incorporate a greater sense of overall wellbeing into your everyday life with positive benefits for your mood and health. Emily says, "Given that taking a trip to the bathroom is often one of the very few opportunities we have throughout the day to take time for ourselves, I’m convinced it’s worthwhile creating a space that allows us to relax, and that includes having an excellent loo experience. In fact it’s been scientifically proven that mindfulness (wherever you can find it) actually improves physical and mental health, and cognitive performance".

Award-winning blogger and lifestyle journalist Emily "Pink House" Murray has invaluable advice to offer anyone looking to refresh their home.

Here at Phoenix we couldn't agree more with Emily's philosophy. I highlighted the benefits of mindfulness in two of my previous blogs (Meditation - The Power of Now and Monkey Mind - Taming the Chimp) and having a designated space in which to practice being mindful can only help. Of course, not everybody has big bucks to spend when it comes to home improvements but making subtle interior design changes doesn't have to mean splashing the cash. The importance of interior design in creating the right atmosphere cannot be overstated. Our environment has a significant role to play in our mood and factors such as colour and tone can make all the difference to how we feel, particularly when we wake in the morning and when we get home at the end of a stressful day. That's why colour is one of the key therapeutic tools we deploy at Phoenix. Making our clients more aware of how colour can influence their mood and emotions, whether it be in the choice of clothes they wear or the colour of their living room wallpaper, can make a tangible difference to their quality of life. With many people's lives becoming ever-more stressful, there's an urgent need to ensure that their homes are places they can de-stress and chill-out. Research commissioned by bathroom designer and manufacturer Geberit - a supplier to Vizzini - has shown that the growing problem of smartphone addiction is making it increasingly difficult for people to switch off. Geberit's study produced the alarming finding that the average Edinburgh resident is now checking their phone 42.7 times each day – which works out at over 1.5 million times in a lifetime. This was a topic covered in one of my previous blogs Addiction - The Ties That Bind, in which I highlighted the fact that addiction to smartphones and other electronic gadgets is rapidly becoming a problem every bit as serious as drug and alcohol dependency. Research into the impact of modern living on Edinburgh's wellbeing has found that the city is facing burn-out, with six out of ten people struggling to switch off from technology. Multi-tasking women use their phones for an hour more a day than men, racking up five hours each day attached to their handsets – one third of their entire waking hours. The study by Geberit showed that eight out of ten adults are conscious that they spent more time using technology each day than sleeping. Over half of the region are unable to find time to relax, and a huge 56 per cent of people in Edinburgh reported that they were stressed out from the strains of modern life. In the quest for some respite, 43 per cent use the bathroom as a space to switch off and escape, and 38 per cent make the bedroom a tech-free zone. A quarter of adults head to the living room to relax, whilst one in five do so in the kitchen. One in twelve adults hide out in the shed! Whatever your chillout zone of choice, it's vital to have that one space that you treat as a tech-free zone and where you can cut yourself off from the outside world and relax.

My new bathroom has been designed to fulfil many of the same criteria as Geberit's Sensory Space campaign.

Last year Geberit launched its Sensory Space campaign to make people more aware of the impact modern life is having on their day to day wellbeing and why the bathroom makes for the perfect sanctuary escape. Overloading our brains can lead to a loss of focus. We may find we’re not as efficient as we need to be, perhaps multitasking to a point of exhaustion, while not taking care of ourselves and ultimately fall prey to a feeling of burnout. Creating a sensory space within the home means there’s a place of comfort and calm; somewhere to revive the body and the mind and a space for invigorating the senses and reducing stress levels, making you better prepared for whatever life throws at you. The Sensory Space campaign provides advice on how everything from acoustics to lighting, textures and fragrances can be used to create that more relaxing environment. Holly Aspinall, consumer marketing manager at Geberit says: “We are all aware of the multiple pressures affecting our modern-day lives, however the level of exposure to technology revealed by our research, and the significant impact it is having on the nation’s wellbeing, is concerning. We found that people are actively aware of how much time they spend online - whether that be on emails, social media, general browsing or working - and that they struggle to relax, but seem unable to escape these pressures. Our research shows that young adults today are set to be first ‘phone millionaires’ – those who, at current patterns of usage, stand to check their phones over 1.5 million times over their lifetime. Taking a deliberate decision to spend time each day away from technology and distractions, whether it be in a dedicated sanctuary space such as the bathroom, or simply putting away your phone and enjoying uninterrupted wind-down time, is essential.”

Neuroscientist Dr Jack Lewis, who specialises in neuroforming – using neuroscience to inform better life choices – says that the Geberit research suggests a significant threat to the nation’s wellbeing. “Believe it or not, stress in moderation is a real asset," he says. "Some stress is a good thing because it enables us to mobilise extra resources to deal with the root cause of our problems, to help us make them go away. But the stress system works best in short bursts. The trouble is that today’s “always on” lifestyle and perpetual tech intrusions, see us continually bombarded with information, with no respite in-between. This means that the stress hormone cortisol is constantly surging through our bodies (think chronic stress), leaving us constantly on edge, permanently at 'action stations'. With no time spent in true relaxation mode, our cortisol levels never get a chance to subside back down to baseline levels. The long-term impact on the nation could be significant because chronically high cortisol levels means an overclocked stress system, which wears us out, making us cranky and less productive. It’s vital that the nation starts to take some true “tech time out” or else many of us risk burning out. Steps that can make a real difference include creating a dedicated sanctuary space in the home to properly decompress, and then commit to using it regularly for a few minutes of meditation or breathing exercises each day. Carrying out these “cortisol reduction rituals” in the shower or bath helps to incorporate them effortlessly into your daily routine, providing the opportunity to declutter your mind and bring about those rare, but vitally important, moments of calm.”

Here at Phoenix we fully endorse the Sensory Space campaign and highly recommend that everyone has a designated chill-out space within their home where phones and other electronic devices are switched off or left at the door. It doesn't have to be the bathroom - it could be a conservatory, a summer house or the bedroom - just so long as there's somewhere you can switch off and unwind without risk of being disturbed by messages, calls and notifications. The bedroom is a particularly important no-go zone for electronic appliances, not least because the blue light emitted by phones and tablets suppresses the production of melatonin - the chemical that regulates sleep. It’s no wonder that increasing numbers of young people in particular are reporting problems with insomnia and disrupted sleep patterns. One excellent piece of advice given to me by my psychologist when I was in therapy was this: “The bedroom is for sleep and sex, nothing else. Keep electronic devices out of it”. There’s a lot of sense in this and we suggest you pay heed. Here at Phoenix we can help you to make the required changes in your life to promote a healthier and less stressful lifestyle. Our range of services includes instruction in meditation and mindfulness-based practices and guidance on how you can use colour to alter your state of mind as well as advice on limiting your tech activity. Contact us now at or visit to find out more or book a free initial consultation.

UK’s most stressed cities:

1 Leicester

2 Plymouth

3 London

4 Manchester

5 Glasgow = Edinburgh

7 Bristol

8 Oxford

9 Sheffield

10 Birmingham

*Survey of 1,000 adults commissioned by Geberit, April 2018

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