3 colours that cause anxiety – avoid these shades in your home to protect your mental wellbeing

Experts reveal the colours associated with negative emotions you don’t need in your life

Black painted brick wall in the dining area of a kitchen extension, with white dining table and chairs
(Image credit: Future PLC/Colin Poole)

First, a disclaimer: there is no scientific evidence that colours can directly influence our emotions – say, what colours make us happy – and actually, wouldn't it be exhausting if they did? As experimental psychologist Dr Domicele Jonauskaite says, ‘We live in a world of colour. If every colour made us feel strong emotions, we would experience emotional overload.’

However we do link colours with particular feelings, ideas and linguistic concepts (‘green with envy’, for example). Dr Domicele explains, ‘Ours and other labs’ research shows that colours have consistent and systematic associations with emotions. These associations are similar across different cultures – we tested 73. Research on colour-emotion associations tells us very little about how colours make us feel, though.’ 

After all, how do you measure feelings? The science is currently limited to comparing how ‘arousing’ we find different colours by measuring changes in heart rate and skin conductivity. However, it’s true to say that colours are a universal language we use to communicate. The power of their associations to affect mood and emotions will vary from person to person depending on their life experience, mental health and personality.

Detail shot of a decorating moodboard combining yellow and dark grey

(Image credit: Future PLC/Dominic Blackmore)

Lee Chambers, a wellbeing consultant, says: ‘For some individuals, the intensity of colours they associate with warnings, such as bright reds and yellows, can draw the attention and incite energy, which for some people may exacerbate anxieties. They can also be overwhelming and emotion-inducing, amplifying feelings of unease.’ Both colours have been shown to trigger hunger as part of a fight-or-flight response – a fact capitalised on by fast food companies like McDonalds and Burger King, who use the colours in their logos, and important to consider when look at paint ideas for your home. 

Lee also believes black can contribute to anxiety. He explains, ‘Black evokes a range of emotions, but can create a dark and solemn environment which has the potential to amplify anxiety.’

However, Lee points out that it’s not just single colours that can cause stress. ‘It’s worth considering that some individuals are impacted by the combination of colours, which can cause a level of visual tension that is unsettling.’ Angela Wright, a colour psychologist who devised a system for choosing colour based on years of lab research into our associations between colour and emotions (Colour Affects), advises, ‘To avoid fuelling anxiety, don’t mix black and yellow – they are nature’s danger signal.’ The message here: before settling on the right colour combinations for your rooms, do your research.  

Colours that cause anxiety  

Yellow gallery wall

(Image credit: Mylands)

 Colour experts say these are the colours to use carefully in a decorating scheme.

1. Red

Earthy red living with rich brown leather Chesterfield-style sofa and upholstered footstool

(Image credit: Future PLC/Dominic Blackmore)

A 2020 study by a team of experimental psychologists, Feeling Blue or Seeing Red?, (Domicele Jonauskaite et al) asked test subjects to identify the emotions they linked with colour swatches, as an investigation into colour psychology. One of the strongest responses was to red: ‘In our study,’ wrote the authors, ‘red was associated with positive and negative emotions.’ Seventy-three percent linked it to anger, 68% to love, 51% to hate and 39% to pleasure. The intensity of those feelings can be the trigger. 

Karen Haller, a behavioural design consultant, colour specialist and author of bestseller The Little Book of Colour, adds, ‘Too much red can put you into feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and the ‘fight/flight’ response. It’s great when you need some motivation, an energy boost. That could be where you exercise, or your home office where you might need some late-afternoon motivation. But strong and vibrant colours like this can stimulate our emotions, so I always advise my clients that just a splash is enough.’

Joa Studholme, colour curator for Farrow & Ball, disagrees, and thinks it’s the contrast you create by pairing red ideas with another colour that creates the tension: ‘For centuries, reds have been used in reception rooms. Their warmth and depth often makes you feel secure rather than anxious. It’s best to avoid using strong red on the walls with bright white woodwork, however. It’s the strong contrast that makes for a very un-relaxing atmosphere. Better to use a red-based white on the trim or ceiling.’ 

2. Yellow

Bright yellow bedroom with IKEA storage units in the alcoves on each side of a double bed

(Image credit: Future PLC/Dominic Blackmore)

Yellow has two sides to its ‘personality’. Angela Wright explains, ‘The right yellow can lift our spirits and our self-esteem; it is the colour of self-confidence and optimism. Too much of it, or the wrong tone in relation to the other tones in a colour scheme, can cause self-esteem to plummet, giving rise to fear and anxiety.’

Karen Haller advises against immersive decorating with a colour this powerful: ‘There is a trend at the moment called "colour drenching" where all the walls, ceiling, door, window frames, everything is painted in the same colour. It might look effective and you might think “wow!” when you see it in a magazine, but really consider if you can live being immersed in that colour and how you’re likely to feel and behave long-term.’

To keep on the right side of yellow, team it with pure white and/or touches of black, or soften it with gentle greys. Done well, it’s clear why it’s one of our top living room paint colours for 2023.

3. Black

Black painted brick wall in the dining area of a kitchen extension, with white dining table and chairs

(Image credit: Future PLC/Colin Poole)

As Dr Domicele’s Feeling Blue or Seeing Red? study pointed out, there are many negative associations with black on a linguistic level: ‘black magic’, ‘blackmail’, and so on. Although it also can be ‘triggering notions of sophistication and elegance’ according to the study, it was associated with negative emotions, too. Test subjects linked it to disappointment, hate, sadness, regret, fear and contempt.

Angela Wright elaborates, ‘Black is essentially an absence of light, since no wavelengths are reflected and it can, therefore, be menacing. Many people are afraid of the dark.’ However, she believes it can also be used positively. ‘It communicates absolute clarity, with no fine nuances. It communicates sophistication and works particularly well with white.’ That classic combination is one of the best colours to paint your kitchen, especially large, bright rooms where black can define spaces and absorb light for a cosier feel.

All-black dining room with black painted table and white dining chairs and accents

(Image credit: Future PLC/Dominic Blackmore)


What colours cause stress?

‘From a colour psychology perspective, the two main colours that could fuel anxiety the quickest are red and yellow,’ explains Karen Haller, a behavioural design consultant, colour specialist and author of bestseller The Little Book of Colour

What colours are best for anxiety?

Greens and blues are linked with positive emotions, presumably because we link them to nature – plants, sea and sky. Little Greene’s creative director Ruth Mottershead says, ‘Green creates tranquil, positive spaces that make us feel nurtured, harnessing the calming effects of nature indoors. This restful atmosphere may be exactly what you are seeking in a bedroom or living room.’ Other calming colours for bedrooms include whites, terracotta and soft pinks. 

Vanessa Richmond

Vanessa Richmond has been a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant since 2021. Her career in magazines began in 1998 and, apart from a four-year stint at women’s lifestyle magazine Red, it has been spent working on interiors titles including House Beautiful, Country Homes & Interiors and Style at Home. She first joined the Ideal Home team in 2006 as Chief Sub-editor and subsequently became its Associate Editor, Editor and Editorial Director. Now she writes for idealhome.co.uk and Ideal Home magazine as a freelance journalist.