Environmental clutter can have a major impact on your mood and mental health which can lead to anxiety and stress. Let’s explore how and why clutter is so bad for your mind, and how to conquer it to improve your health.
What is clutter in the first place?
Clutter can be a collection of random (or not) disorganized things. Moreover, clutter can be physical things piled up or scattered around our physical spaces (even your closets or storage units can be cluttered), or even digital clutter in your inbox.
How our physical environment gets cluttered
Clutter can be insidious. It can slowly creep in over time.
For me, even moving out of my parents’ home, I left with boxes of things that I didn’t necessarily need or use. I kept them in boxes and rarely, if ever, went looking for them.
As time goes on, we might buy things from stores or even garage sales. Gifts tend to accumulate whether we like them or not.
Gift baskets, party favours, and even toys in the bottom of cereal boxes can all end up as clutter scattered around our homes.
Our family members like spouses or children can accumulate clutter too which contributes to our cluttered homes.
How a cluttered home causes a cluttered mind
Have you ever noticed that your living space has a huge effect on your mood? If you haven’t, you’re not alone! So many of us don’t realize the impact that living amongst clutter has on our mental state and how anxiety and stress can be triggered.
Imagine you are walking through your home, it’s tidy and clean, but gradually more and more things start getting stuck to you like a magnet. The more you try to resist, the more stuff gets stuck to you. The weight of a thousand magnets slowing you to a snail’s pace. That’s what happens in your mind!
Furthermore, clutter can also contribute to a mental to-do list that feels like it is never-ending. This physical clutter causes more and more mental clutter.
How clutter causes stress and anxiety
Have you ever been late for something because you can’t find your keys? You tear the house apart only to find them buried under some papers or clothes? I sure have!
That frustration increases our stress levels. Our adrenal glands secrete a hormone called cortisol. One of the main stress hormones.
Scientists at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute used fMRI to view how our brains respond to different environments. It turns out the participants’ brains liked orderly, tidy environments and did NOT like cluttered environments.
Clutter in the environment increases the mental load leading to anxiety and stress
The clutter in your home can leave you feeling like you’ve got a chaotic mind. The excess stimuli these items are causing can increase our stress hormone cortisol.
Have you ever gone to a hotel room and just enjoyed how simple the surroundings are? It’s tidy, it’s clean and your eyes can rest without seeing a bunch of stuff looking back at you.
The human brain can easily get overwhelmed by chaotic environments which can cause feelings of anxiety. It’s just too much information for our brains to take in.
Dr Diane Roberts Stoler discusses in Psychology Today the impact clutter can have on the human brain. She explains that visual distraction can cause cognitive overload which can impair our working memory.
The impaired working memory can have a big impact on our cognitive function making it harder to focus. I don’t know about you, but if I can’t focus and my brain is feeling stretched, I can also get a wee bit grumpy! Subsequently, I feel bad about myself!
Unfinished projects increase feelings of stress
Have you ever started a craft project or renovation only to stall and take an extended break? Every time you walk by, you feel terrible.
These are Nagging Unfinished Tasks (NUTS) which are unfinished projects that cause negative feelings. Not only can NUTS cause clutter, but they might also be contributing to feelings of guilt, negative self-talk, or other negative emotions.
In the Current Psychology journal Ferrari, J.R., et al (2018) found that those with clutter, tend to procrastinate. This can lead to poor self-esteem which could likely increase stress. In addition to clutter causing anxiety and stress, it makes us feel bad about ourselves too.
Your home environment impacts your physical health
Your physical health can be impacted as well by messy a home, which causes cortisol levels to rise due from the excessive stimuli of too much stuff which can cause a lot of health problems.
A chronic rise in cortisol can lead to a rise in blood pressure which can increase your risk of stroke
Here’s an important fact: cortisol also affects your immune system which can make you more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections. Remember, it’s your immune system also helps combat scary chronic illnesses like cancer.
Serious psychological conditions
I would be remiss if I did not mention more serious conditions such as Hoarding Disorder, Clinical Depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and more. This is a general overview of the negative impacts of clutter. Many people, even those with milder anxiety disorders (which can still be hard to bear!) should seek the help of mental health professionals.
You can make a big difference, quickly!
I don’t only want to discuss the negative impacts of clutter because there’s good news! If you declutter for just 30 minutes per day, that’s 182.5 hours per year!! Does that give you a good feeling?
Do you think you could create a decluttered, clean house in that time? I bet you could or at the very least, have way less clutter!
Let’s jump into how!
How to take control of your physical space and declutter your home
Here’s the awesome, amazing best part: YOU CAN FIX THIS!! You can create a sense of control by tackling your messy environments.
Choose your starting point. I like to choose a junk drawer, coffee table, piles of paper, kitchen table or countertop. Somewhere that is easy and where you can get some great results fast!
Next, use this thought process to go through things:
Do I use this? This question is great for clothes and other things that you’re hanging onto, but that don’t get used.
Do I like this? This question is awesome for deciding about artwork, heirlooms (which can be sentimental, we’re getting to that!), and tchotchkes and trinkets.
Do I need this? Question If it’s something you need (like I NEED my blow dryer), then keep it!
Set your timer!
Work through a specific area for a certain amount of time each day. I LOVE to use my timer and always reward myself for finishing (yes, it’s usually tea!)
Even after a couple of days, you’ll see a big change.
How to make a big impact
Choose an area that will give you quick win
Once you’ve done an easier area, you’ve experienced a win! I LOVE wins because they help us realize “Oh wait, I CAN do this!”
You might even be starting to see an improvement in your surroundings. I love to choose an area that I can admire. I often will walk by my junk drawer or closet and just be like “Yeah, this feels like a clean home!”
Maybe you’ll even notices that as the clutter goes down, so do anxiety and stress.
Next, choose an area that has a higher presence of clutter, but isn’t going to completely overwhelm you.
I suggest steering clear of storage rooms, garages, and sometimes even kitchens for now. They can just be too overwhelming to start with. Get to those later when your decluttering muscles are good and strong!
So choose an area like your dining room, hallway or somewhere with less stuff that’s not completely piled up. You can start to work through this area for 15, 30 or 60 minutes at a time per day.
When you’re done, HOORAY! Toast yourself with some tea, take a break, and then move on to the next messy room or space.
In no time, you’ll have a minimalist space…or at least whatever your goals are!
If you’re having a harder time, it’s ok!
Many people get stuck on sentimental things or “I-could-use-it-one-day” items. That’s ok! Let’s talk about it.
Part of working through your home is realizing the effect of clutter on our daily lives.
If you find yourself getting stuck, take some time and write down the effects clutter is having on your daily life, the quality time with your family members, and your stress levels.
Take some time to reflect on why you’re struggling to declutter something you KNOW you should get rid of, but that is challenging you in the present moment.
Sentimental things can be hard
You don’t need to declutter everything! The great Peter Walsh suggests that all of our sentimental items should be able to fit on a dining room table. I think this gives us a great idea of truly how much is typically sentimental.
Beware that sometimes we think things are “sentimental”, but they are merely trinkets or little reminders of the past. All of these extra things can cause clutter which can increase stress and anxiety.
Keep what is sentimental, but remember: not everything is sentimental.
Does it cause good feelings? Is it tied to a person or place?
If you are afraid you’ll forget a particular memory, write it down, and take pictures before you declutter. Discuss it with friends or family. This can be such a beautiful practice.
Just in case items
The just-in-case or I-could-use-it-one-day items can clog up your decluttering.
In all of the items I’ve decluttered, only once did I think “Oh darn, I decluttered that!” It was a set of 2-litre jars that I used to make kombucha. I had decluttered them the previous year when I decided to make kombucha again. The good news is, I didn’t regret decluttering because they were out of the way for a whole year!
I’m not saying to be wasteful or to waste your money, but that I bet less than 1% of what we declutter, we ever would use in the future.
Improving your mental well-being
Remember how the Princeton study showed that our brains like more orderly and tidy environments? I bet that even a few small steps of decluttering a small area of your physical surroundings can have a big impact!
Say you have papers and piles on the end of your kitchen counter. Imagine how much better it would be to walk into that room and not see the clutter anymore!
Other benefits of decluttering
Taking control of the messy desk or your cluttered living room can have other awesome benefits for your anxiety or mental health.
First of all, I find I always feel way better if I can just get up and do something. Yes, I can get stuck in the paralysis of not wanting to do anything if I’m feeling anxious or depressed, but I’ve realized that the simple physical activity of decluttering can make me feel better. Action! It feels good!
Your risk of accidents goes down with every pile you move. Falls can have a devastating impact on seniors. When I worked in the emergency department as a nurse, I was so sad when elderly people would come in with a hip fracture because I knew the chances of it being life-changing were high.
Allergies and asthma can improve as well when we declutter because there are fewer areas for dust and mold to hide!
Loving being home again
Regardless of what ANY research scientist says, we all know the negative impact of clutter on us.
When we take the time to declutter, we are prioritizing our family and our mental health. No judgment if you’re just getting started because we all that the first step is the most important.
Just make a plan and get started today! You will LOVE walking into your decluttered and tidy home. And it can be decluttered and tidy to your standards. What you truly find comfortable is the most important part. Don’t let others’ ideas influence you, but also don’t settle for LESS than you want.
Ferrari, J.R., Roster, C.A., Crum, K.P. et al. Procrastinators and Clutter: An Ecological View of Living with Excessive “Stuff”. Current Psychology 37, 441–444 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-017-9682-9
McMains S, Kastner S. Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2011 Jan 12;31(2):587-97. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3766-10.2011
Dr Diane Roberts Stoler (2023). Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-resilient-brain/202302/the-many-mental-benefits-of-decluttering)