What is the most stressful color? The one shade to use with caution

Red is considered the most stressful color, influencing everything from our behavior to our decorating choices

What is the most stressful color? Three red rooms: kitchen, living room and home office
(Image credit: Antony Crolla / Luke White / Tom St Aubyn)

As anyone who has been through the process of searching for room colors will attest, choosing the right color for a room can be a minefield with endless choices and subtle nuances to understand and overcome. 

But two common questions we are often asked when deciding on the best room color ideas are; 'what is the most stressful color?' and 'what colors cause anxiety?' According to color psychologists, the most stressful and anxiety-inducing color is 'red'. 

Red room ideas can be too intense for some people. It reminds us of danger. It is strong, aggressive and stimulating, which is why it is often used in warning signs and traffic signals. Physically, red can induce reactions in the body that are similar to stress responses, such as increased heart rate, heightened senses and higher body temperature. 

However, red isn't all bad, especially when used as an accent color in the home. It has many positive connotations, too. Red is the color that represents love, power and motivation. This hue has the ability to grab attention, evoke passion and sensuality – and has also been known to stimulate the production of melatonin and help with memory.

Here color psychologists, decorators and experts reveal why red is the most stressful color – and how to decorate with red in a more pleasing and less stimulating way by using the color wheel to create strong color combinations, using red as an accent shade, and what variations to use to create a scheme that won't overwhelm. 

Bedroom mirror with antique finish

(Image credit: Future)

What is the most stressful color? 

For all its negative associations, it is undeniable that red is a color that we should pay heed to when it comes to our mindset as well as our decorating ideas. A noteworthy and historical color, scientists have more recently found evidence that over 40,000 years ago, Stone Age dwellers ground up red clay to make wall and body paint. Another use was protection in the afterlife.

Today, we've established that shades of red play a pivotal part in early development. Did you know that red is the first color that humans perceive, after black and white? 

Red is also a prominent color found at weddings, from Roman times when brides wore red shawls to show their love and loyalty, to present-day China, where red is a symbol of good fortune.

Over time, color psychologists have found that red can have a profound influence on our mood, perceptions and even our actions. Decorating with red can even change your physiology and balance of hormones. So what is it about the shades of crimson, scarlet and ruby that make them so highly potent when it comes to interior design?

Red, for all its design potential, is considered the most stressful color. 'It's the one color that we are unable to live with in large quantities,' says Karen Haller, color psychology specialist, teacher and best-selling author of The Little Book of Color (opens in new tab).

'The most stressful color for you is entirely personal,' she says. 'It could be a color that conjures up a personal memory that has negative or unpleasant feelings. This might not necessarily be carmine. However, we respond to red in a more physical way – it can raise our pulse rate and put is into fight or flight mode.'

'It helps to be mindful of the visceral impact a color can have on our mindset. For this reason, I would avoid red for a child’s bedroom,' Karen continues. 'You want them to go to sleep straight away, and the color red is saying "stay awake" – it’s bursting with energy, physically stimulating and can cause an overactive imagination.'

But that is not to say that you shouldn't use red for your home decor ideas. In fact, the color red is enigmatic, strong and can be used to great effect. We asked some of our favorite interior designers on the best ways to use this controversial color with aplomb. 

How to use red in the home

Earthy pinks – these natural hues, somewhere between red, pink and brown, conjure up warmth in any room and are reminiscent of late summer evening sunsets. 

1. Decorate with an earthy rhubarb

Home office with red walls, cream cabinets and shelving

(Image credit: Tom St Aubyn)

Temper down the color by only using it on the walls and painting the joinery in a fresh white, as shown here in this room by Georgie Wykeham. Toned down, earthy shades are considered some of the most relaxing colors to add to your home. 

‘Rhubarb is my go-to color; added to a neutral scheme, it creates warmth, depth and a touch of the unexpected,' says Georgie Wykeham, founder, Georgie Wykeham Designs. 'Used on its own, it is a very easy color to live with and yet it also works beautifully with blues, greens, pinks and reds.’ 

2. Add depth and light

Red entryway with pink painted walls and urn on table

(Image credit: Edward Bulmer Natural Paint / Rachael Smith)

‘When colors hover between one shade and another they can take on interest and intrigue,' says Edward Bulmer, founder, Edward Bulmer Natural Paint. 'Our Etruscan Brown is so named to recognize that it owes as much to the cinnabar red of Etruscan fresco decoration as the earth tones of a classic brown. It gives you all the redness you need for a “red” room but in the evening light it pounds with the soft deep neutral appeal of brown, warm and chic.’ 

Conveying an unrivalled depth and light, we love this sophisticated tone. If this is too daring, then consider using this shade in smaller doses or in lesser used rooms to add an element of surprise. 

3. Inform a distinctive note

Red kitchen cabinets with white wall and shelving for objects

(Image credit: Antony Crolla )

Max Rollitt brings his distinctive style of decoration to this Georgian rectory where the pantry is given a sense of grounding with a selection of antiques set against warm-colored kitchen cabinets.

‘These pinks work brilliantly to bring year-round warmth to dark or north-facing rooms,' says Max Rollitt, founder, Max Rollitt. 

Be daring and decadent with your color combinations for rooms when red is involved. 'I recently used an earthy pink hue in a bathroom and paired it with a complementary cornflower blue.’ 

4. Use red-pink as a canvas for art

Red living room with antiques, chandelier and wood dining table

(Image credit: Luke White / Studio Indigo)

Providing a perfect backdrop for portraits by the artist Diarmuid Kelly, this elegant hue pairs with the cornice and panel details in this drawing room by Studio Indigo. Walls in Battlesden Pink, mixed by Studio Indigo and specialist painter Tony Malins.

‘Pink is my favourite color and a perfect backdrop to art,' says Mike Fisher, creative director and founder, Studio Indigo. 'When this color is layered and built up using many coats it gives the walls a sense of depth and movement which is particularly important in rooms that are flooded with light – the effect is the air seems to shimmer and sparkle.’ 

Jennifer Ebert
Jennifer Ebert

Jennifer is the Digital Editor at Homes & Gardens. Having worked in the interiors industry for a number of years, spanning many publications, she now hones her digital prowess on the 'best interiors website' in the world. Multi-skilled, Jennifer has worked in PR and marketing, and the occasional dabble in the social media, commercial and e-commerce space. Over the years, she has written about every area of the home, from compiling design houses from some of the best interior designers in the world to sourcing celebrity homes, reviewing appliances and even the odd news story or two.