The Effect of Clutter on Your Mental Health and 4 Ways to Simplify

So I used to always think that it was my own personal neuroses that caused me to get stressed out at the sight of a mess. Truly, deep down bothered me. If I sat down at my computer to write a blog post, I felt like I needed to know the laundry was done, the dishes were clean, and everything was neatly put away. If all those boxes were checked, then I was in the perfect head space to sit down and write.

I always like to think that I could equate any issue in my life to an episode of Sex and the City. And this issue of clutter, well that’s an easy one. Let’s go to Season 4 when Carrie and Aiden get in a big fight when he starts moving his things in. What’s the cause of the fight? Clutter.

So Carrie is bothered by clutter. I’m bothered by clutter! I have realized that I’m not wrong. In fact, it feels pretty darn redeeming to know that a) I’m not crazy but b) other people suffer similarly!

So here’s what we do know about clutter.

In a Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin from 2010, it was noted that people reported higher rates of anxiety and depression, as well as cortisol levels, when they felt that their house was cluttered. Those who reported their homes as “restful” showed much lower rates.

What is even more interesting from this study is that prolonged stress, brought on by clutter, throws us into a start of low grade fight-or-flight, the elevated cortisol response that happens in the body during stressful situations. This constant elevation of stress depletes our health, both physically and mentally.

Another interesting study from Cornell University, more recently from 2016, notes that this stress triggering may also cause other coping and avoidance strategies, “such as eating junk food, oversleeping, or binge-watching Netflix.”

Read more:

How to Effectively Manage Stress & Anxiety

How to Effectively Manage Stress & Anxiety (Pt. 2)

The difference between men and women

Did you know that even how women and men perceive clutter differs? (Well, if you live with a spouse/significant other/roommate, this might not surprise you that much.)

In 2009, UCLA’s Center on Every Lives of Families (CELF) published a study that showed that women who perceived their homes to be “stressful” did not experience a decline in cortisol levels upon arriving home and also exhibited increased depressed mood. Men, of course, did not exhibit the same results, presumably due to their lack of stress from the clutter upon arriving home. Of course, this study has many limitations (as discussed here), but it’s interesting to note that this lack of cortisol fluctuation from men could correlate with “societal norms” of the home being “the woman’s domain.”

Other studies have suggested that there are differences in vision between men and women. In fact, even though men have 25% more neuron in their visual cortex, they are more attuned to visual cues that they feel belong to them, and, of course, less bothered by those that they think do not. So when he says he doesn’t see the piles of dirty clothes on the floor, he might actually be right. (Sigh, however, unfortunately, ladies!)

How Do we Simplify?

Obviously, as you’re reading through this, you might think that the answer to your problems is to simply “ignore” the clutter. I’m here to tell you that while that may be a short and easy fix, it’s not a lasting solution. Even though we may not be aware of the current issue, our bodies are and can still be impacted by the stress caused from clutter.

By this point, I’m sure that everyone has taken a peek into Marie Kondo’s show, Tidying Up, on Netflix. And while the KonMari method might not work for all (or perhaps, everything sparks joy), there are some simple tips that you can use to declutter your home and your life.

Take one room at a time.

The KonMari method suggests tackling categories at a time. I would say rather, start with a room at a time. Break your home into smaller pieces. Start with rooms that you spend the most time in. Organize each room into piles with these questions:

Do I use this?

That’s a simple one. Can you think of the last time that you used this? If you can’t, it’s likely not something that you need.

Do I need this?

Not everything has a use but you might want to keep it. Or, in the example of the kitchen, you might have more things that you actually use (case in point: cookie sheets. Do I use it? Yes. Do I need 7? No). This question helps you eliminate if any item is essential.

Does this item have value?

When you still aren’t sure, I give it the third test. Why are you holding on to this? Is it sentimental? Why do you like it? If you can’t find an answer as to why you’re keeping it, it’s likely time to get rid of it.

Sometimes, as I sort through things in this manner, I find that I revisit some items I might have previously kept or discarded and “re-identified” with them. That’s okay, but this will help you sort through the things that you keep “just because.”

Make a list

If you’ve been following along on the blog, you know that I’m a big list person. Gimme a list, I’ll conquer the world. But seriously, writing down just exactly how you plan to tackle the mess in your house helps me feel that I’m less mentally cluttered. Everyday, our brains are continually processing the world as we see it, which is getting increasingly complex. Think about all the digital stuff - the internet, Facebook news feeds, digital ads, social media, apps - all of these things are continually sending notifications to you, causing you to feel cluttered.

So make a list. Write down what you need to do. Take a minute for yourself and decompress your thoughts in your mind. Don’t you feel more organized and at peace when you write things down? Set a time limit so that you can come back to what was most important and organize those thoughts in simplest to most time-consuming.

Set aside time in your day

Just like making a list, allow yourself time in each day to make progress. If the idea of cleaning out closets or large rooms intimidates you, set a timer (just like above!) and work on a smaller project. Giving yourself a time limit allows you to not feel pressured to complete a big project (which may seem daunting), but may also give you the urge to continue your progress. Just like working out, once you start, you might realize how good it feels and feel inspired to keep going.

Read more:

Making the Time to Meal Prep

Making Your Personal Fitness a Priority

Give yourself grace

Again, frequent blog readers. You might have heard me mention this phrase before. Start small. Rome wasn’t built in a day and your house will not be magically free of dust, clutter and garbage with a flick of a wrist, either. Start small. Start with one trash bag a day. Start with one attainable task. If you’re like me, starting with the smallest task gives you a sense of accomplishment as you can check off items on your list. Don’t allow the act of removing clutter to cause you more stress. After all, that’s what we’re trying to avoid.

Read more:

On Giving Yourself Grace

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The Effect of Clutter on Your Mental Health and 4 Ways to Simplify