We all have natural reactions to color. A clear blue sky can lift our spirits. A bouquet of sunflowers can make us feel optimistic. The green grass of a meadow can make us feel relaxed and rejuvenated. A bright red car can make us feel adventurous, while a white room can leave us feeling unsettled. Our culturally learned associations and our individualized physiological and psychological makeup produce our emotional responses to color.

Color, one of the most powerful elements in our environment, affects us in many ways. Color is often the first thing we see when we walk into a room, and changing an area’s color can affect its ambiance and “personality.”

Color has a long history in the healing arts. Because color has been linked to psychological, physiological, and social reactions in all of us, health practitioners throughout the ages have attempted to create healing environments; these do not exist automatically, but they can be created in any setting. Creating a healing environment requires attention to specific design elements, including color and lighting. When choosing a color palette, for example, designers consider the characteristics of its potential users (such as their age, culture, gender, etc.), the type of activity that may be performed in the environment, the nature and character of light sources, and the size and shape of the space.

But our perception of color is malleable and relies heavily on biological processes in both the eyes and the brain. The brain processes an object’s shape and color in separate pathways. In addition, the body and mind’s responses to color are influenced by cortical activation, the autonomic nervous system, and hormone activation. Color can affect heart rate, brainwave activity, respiration, and muscular tension; it can also evoke memories and associations, encourage introversion or extroversion, and induce anger or peacefulness. In fact, color therapy is based on these effects.

History of Color and Healing

  • Early Neanderthals used color for its sacred powers and to invoke aid and protection.
  • Ancient Greeks used colors in healing.
  • Colored cloth was used to treat disease in the Middle Ages.
  • The ancient Chinese identified five elements that corresponded to specific colors: yellow for earth, black for water, red for fire, green for wood, and white for metal.
  • Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) incorporated color as a therapeutic tool by providing bright flowers in the rooms of her patients.
  • In 1878, Edwin Babbitt wrote a book on color therapy, or chromotherapy.

The Impact of Color

All colors have three dimensions:

  • Hue—the attribute of the color by which it is distinguished from another color
  • Saturation—the purity or intensity of a hue (also called a chroma)
  • Value—the lightness or darkness of the hue

The visible spectrum of light contains seven major colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (ROYGBIV). Colors, in and of themselves, do not contain inherent emotional triggers. Emotional responses to color are caused by culturally learned associations and by each person’s unique physiological and psychological makeup.

The following information provides a general overview of each of the major colors of the visible spectrum and some of the most common responses attributed to them. These responses have not been verified by evidence-based research at this time:

Red—A primary color located at the infrared end of the visible light spectrum, red is associated with high energy, passion, excitement, and the nature symbol of earth. Red is vibrates 436 trillion times per second.

Orange—Associated with emotional expression, courage, optimism, warmth, and the nature symbol of sunset, the color orange is believed to increase the pulse rate but not the blood pressure. Orange vibrates 473 trillion times per second.

Yellow—Associated with optimism, intellect, enlightenment, happiness, and mental clarity, yellow is considered the color of the mind and can raise low-energy emotional states of depression, apathy, and discouragement. Yellow vibrates 510 trillion times per second.

Green—Green is the master color, found in the middle of the spectrum. Green is believed to be the stabilizing color for many physical ailments and is associated with healing, peace, balance, nurturing, unconditional love, and the nature symbol of growth. Green vibrates 584 trillion times per second.

Blue—Associated with relaxation, serenity, wisdom, spirituality, loyalty, calming, and the nature symbol of sky and ocean, blue increases the elimination of toxins and stimulates intuitive powers. Blue vibrates 658 trillion times per second.

Indigo—Associated with meditation, intuition, spirituality, indigo is a cooling color and it is believed to reduce swelling, and it is generally calming. Indigo vibrates 695 trillion times per second.

Violet—With the shortest wavelength of the visible colors, violet is believed to calm the metabolic process, relax muscles, and possess antibiotic characteristics. Violet is associated with spirituality, universal power and healing, and stress reduction. Violet vibrates 731 trillion times per second.