The Negative Impact of Clutter on Mental Health

Illustration of a person's mental state before and after decluttering

Verywell / Laura Porter

Do you dig through piles of clothes to find the shirt you want to wear for the day? When you leave the house, do you struggle to find your keys and your wallet among all the items on your kitchen table? Maybe you can't open the garage door all the way because there are so many boxes of knick-knacks in there.

You might tell yourself, I'll declutter eventually. But time keeps passing, and your home, office, or car is still filled to the brim with stuff. If any of this resonates with you, you're not alone. But many people don't realize the connection between clutter and mental health.

What Is the Impact of Clutter on Mental Health?

While accumulating a few extra possessions may not seem like a big deal, clutter can actually have a negative impact on your mental health. Clutter can increase stress levels, make it difficult to focus, take a toll on relationships, and more.

This article covers what clutter is, clutter's impact on mental health, what hoarding is, as well as ways you can manage clutter and get organized.

What Is Clutter?

The word clutter refers to items that are strewn about in a disorganized fashion. In general, clutter is a collection of items that people accumulate in their homes and don't necessarily use, but hold on to anyway.

If you answer yes to any of the following questions, chances are you have some degree of clutter in your home:

  • Do you own anything that you never use or no longer need, like clothes that don't fit anymore or old electronic devices?
  • Do you have a "junk drawer" of things you think you'll need, but don't ever use?
  • Do you find yourself buying new items to replace ones you've lost in your house?
  • Do you lack access to certain spaces in your home (i.e., you can't open the door to your basement or park in your garage)?
  • Are you afraid to have houseguests over because of the messy state of your home?

Clutter can even be digital—maybe you never get around to clearing out your email inbox or organizing the documents on your laptop. Just looking at the amount of files you have on your computer might overwhelm you.

Impact of Clutter on Mental Health

Clutter impacts your physical space in an obvious way; but some people don't realize that clutter can have negative mental health effects, too.

Of course, not everyone is affected by clutter in the same way. For instance, someone with perfectionist tendencies is likely to be more stressed out by clutter. But, by becoming aware of how much clutter you have and whether you experience any stress as a result, you'll be better able to discern if there's an opportunity for you to modify your physical space and improve your mental health.

Increased Stress Levels

Ideally, home is a place where we can rest and relax; however, clutter can make it hard to do that. One study found that women who reported more clutter in their homes had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol throughout the day compared to women who had less clutter.

Difficulty Focusing

Clutter can actually be distracting. Our brains can only focus on a limited amount of stimuli at a time. So if you're surrounded by clutter when you're trying to work from home, for example, the clutter can actually make it harder for you to think clearly.

Procrastination

Research shows that people with cluttered homes tend to procrastinate on important tasks. You might have to dig through stacks of papers to pay the bills, or maybe you have so many piles of dirty clothes that it feels overwhelming to start the laundry.

Difficulty With Relationships

It's not uncommon for spouses, partners, or even roommates to argue over whether one person's things are taking up too much space. There might be added strain in a relationship if your clutter is an annoyance to the person you're living with.

In addition, if you're not inviting friends over because your home is cluttered, you might feel a sense of social isolation or even shame.

Trouble Controlling Impulses

One study found that a cluttered environment combined with an "out-of-control mind-set" triggered participants to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors. In other words, the research suggests that it can be more difficult to control your impulses when your mental health and your environment are stressful or "chaotic."

Lower Quality of Life

Clutter can easily lead to a nearly constant feeling of frustration as you struggle to complete daily tasks. The time you spend looking for objects you need or attempting to organize your items could be time spent with loved ones, doing some self-care, or even just relaxing.

One study found that clutter, particularly among older adults, decreased overall life satisfaction.

Why Do People Have Clutter?

While some chalk it up to laziness, there's actually underlying psychology of clutter and disorganization that keeps people from tidying up.

Potential reasons people hold onto clutter include:

  • They feel overwhelmed: It's often a huge job to get rid of things, which can be both physically and mentally exhausting. In the short term, it feels easier to just keep things the same.
  • Objects remind them of important things: People keep clothes that don't fit anymore because they're hoping to lose weight. They hang on to old brochures for cruises because they want to travel. However, keeping objects that remind you of your goals doesn't make you any closer to achieving what you want.
  • Objects have sentimental value: People keep objects from childhood that they associate with fond memories. If a loved one passed away, it's often hard to throw away their possessions.
  • They're afraid to let things go: People are often afraid of feeling guilty about throwing things away (especially, as mentioned, if the object has sentimental value). Also, the idea of not being able to get something back once they get rid of it can be scary. What if they need it later on?
  • They find comfort in their possessions: It wouldn't be so hard to get rid of things if material items didn't benefit people in some way. People's possessions, even if they don't use them, often bring a sense of safety and security that can be painful to let go of.

What Is Hoarding?

Having clutter in your home and having hoarding disorder are two different things; however, it's important to recognize the signs of hoarding in yourself and your loved ones.

Hoarding disorder is a psychiatric condition characterized by a person's inability to get rid of possessions. Those that deal with hoarding disorder also find it difficult to organize their possessions.

Someone who hoards usually shows some or all of the following signs of the disorder:

  • They have cramped and cluttered living spaces. Entire rooms or sections of the house may be piled with belongings that they don't use.
  • Their homes may not be fully functional (i.e., they can't access their bed because their belongings are in the way).
  • They may not see the problem with their clutter.
  • They accumulate items no matter where they are living (even if they're staying in someone else's home).
  • They have difficulty throwing things away, and they often become upset at the idea of throwing things away.
  • There's a buildup of food or trash, creating unsanitary living conditions.

Experts aren't sure of the exact cause of hoarding. It's likely a combination of different factors including personality (many people with hoarding disorder are indecisive), family history, and stressful life events such as the death of a loved one or losing possessions in a fire.

Hoarding disorder is also linked with other psychiatric conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

How to Remove Clutter From Your Life

The following tips can help you address the clutter in your home. But it's just as important to pay attention to your emotional experience as you address clutter. As you may know, it's not always as easy as simply throwing things away.

You might have difficult feelings come up, like anxiety, stress, and even depression. Be sure to talk to a doctor or mental health professional if this is the case.

Dedicate the Time

No doubt, decluttering your entire home is a daunting task. But what if you tried breaking up your time into manageable blocks? Maybe you dedicate one hour of every weekday evening to decluttering a single section of your home.

It's OK to go slowly. You most likely didn't accumulate all of your possessions in one day, so chances are, you're not going to declutter everything in one day, either.

But it could be helpful to set a goal for how long you spend on each room of your house (i.e., two weeks on the living room and three weeks on the garage). You can even invite a trusted friend or loved one to help you.

Reduce Items

Try making four piles of things: the first that you keep, the second that you give away or donate, and the third that you throw away. If you're having trouble deciding what to do with certain items, you can put those in the fourth pile and decide at a later time.

It's often easiest to start with items that can be thrown away, like expired food, old cosmetics, or anything that's broken and cannot be fixed. You may need to look up some recycle centers near you to make sure you're properly disposing of items.

Ask yourself whether you've used an item within the last year. If the answer is no, chances are you can safely donate it without missing it.

Research charities and other organizations that accept donations. It can help with the anxiety you may feel as you're parting with your possessions to realize that you're giving things away to people who will value them.

There's also the option of selling items that are in good condition. You can try having a yard sale, selling items online, or bringing belongings to pawn shops or thrift stores. You might be able to earn some money by selling your items, which can be an extra motivator for tidying up.

Organize

Try to organize items based on what you use every day—you'll want those to be easily accessible, for instance, in the top drawer of your nightstand or in the kitchen cabinet you use most often. A good rule of thumb is to try to keep surfaces (like countertops and desks) free of belongings.

Once again, take small steps when you organize. As you go, you can consider buying an organizing bin or storage container where it's needed; however, be careful not to buy too many. Go back to reducing the number of items you have whenever you feel you can get rid of more. (That's a step you'll return to again and again when keeping a clutter-free home).

Most importantly, notice how it feels as you declutter. Are you able to appreciate the beauty of your furniture when it's not covered with clothes? Does it feel refreshing to sit down at your desk without moving stacks of paper out of the way first?

Noticing how great it feels to have a clutter-free home can help inspire you to keep going on your decluttering journey.

Maintain a Clutter-Free Space

It's just as important to maintain your decluttered home as it is to declutter it in the first place. The key is consistency. Once again, you may find it helpful to dedicate regular time to tidying up. For instance, you might spend 10 minutes at the end of each day putting things back where they belong.

Before you make future purchases, you might want to double-check that you don't already have that item or something similar. Also, consider whether you will actually use the item. You're not alone if you've purchased the latest workout equipment or a new electronic device only to have it sit in the corner collecting dust.

A clean, decluttered room can help you feel more in control of your environment and promote a sense of calmness.

By being more mindful about what you bring into your home (and what you let go of), you're honoring your space and benefitting your mental health.

Learn More About Decluttering

There are tons of TV shows, books, podcasts, and articles on decluttering. Simply start your search online and see what resources come up.

For instance, you might learn more about the Japanese art of feng shui, which has guidelines on promoting good energy flow in a room based on how you arrange furniture and belongings. Research suggests that bedrooms that are aligned with the practice of feng shui can even help promote sleep.

There are also plenty of tips for getting rid of digital clutter. Unsubscribing from email lists, deleting documents you no longer need, and organizing your files into folders are all useful ways of making your digital space easier to navigate.

Be Kind to Yourself

It's natural to have thoughts like, How did I accumulate so much stuff? But try not to be too hard on yourself. Blaming or shaming yourself will not change your situation, and you're not alone if you're overwhelmed by the number of possessions you have. Practice self-compassion and remember, you can achieve your decluttering goals with time and patience.

Reward yourself for your efforts. Instead of waiting until you've decluttered your whole house, giving yourself some type of reward each time you clean may help you persist over time to achieve your long-term goal.

For instance, after you spend an hour cleaning, maybe you sit down and watch an episode of your favorite TV show or play some music and have a solo dance party. These types of rewards can help keep you going until you overcome all of your clutter.

Seek Professional Help

If you're finding it difficult to clear your home of clutter, know that there are mental health professionals who can help.

One type of therapy that may help is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). With CBT, your underlying thoughts and feelings are brought to the surface, so you and a therapist can address anything that's preventing you from making positive life changes. (CBT is a common treatment type for those with hoarding disorder, too.)

A therapist can teach you healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the anxiety, stress, or guilt that may arise as a result of getting rid of clutter.

A Word From Verywell

There are many reasons that people hold onto things they don't need, use, or want. While you might judge yourself or others for accumulating clutter, remember that we develop emotional attachments to objects that often make it harder to get rid of things.

Try paying attention to how you feel in your home; if it's not a space that's relaxing, you may want to consider donating things you no longer need. You may choose to speak with a mental health professional as well, such as a therapist, to uncover any underlying thoughts or feelings that are preventing you from having the space and the life you truly want.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kristen Fuller, MD
Kristen Fuller is a physician, a successful clinical mental health writer, and author. She specializes in addiction, substance abuse, and eating disorders.