How Clutter Affects Our Mental Health

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

Verywell / Laura Porter

Dishes in the sink, piles of dirty laundry stacked up high, blankets and pillows all over the floor, closets in disarray, too much junk in the garage, and an insurmountable number of unused items stored throughout the house...does this sound familiar?

We live in a materialistic culture where society teaches us that the more things we have, the happier we must be, when in fact this clutter can cause stagnant energy and too much stress.

Uncontrolled consumer impulses, emotional attachment to things, sentimental keepsakes, fear of getting rid of things, the need to hold onto past memories are some of the many reasons why we tend to infuse our belongings into our emotions.

Throwing things away can often be painful and can be representative of forgetting the past and giving up on our future, so we often hang onto things in hopes that they will become useful one day when in fact they add to our mental and emotional stress.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing became the best selling book in 2014 that lead to the popular Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo for a reason. So many people are living in physical clutter which can lead to unhappiness, stress and even depression.

Defining Clutter

According to Dictionary.com, clutter is defined as something untidy or overfilled with objects. It also refers to a state or condition of confusion.

However, in reality, clutter is more than untidiness and too many physical objects, as clutter can also refer to emotional and mental “baggage,” so to speak.

Although we often think of clutter as physical stuff, mental and emotional clutter can hold just as much unnecessary space as physical clutter.

Old habits, resentment, cloudy thoughts, messy relationships, financial unpaid debts, a broken vase, jeans that no longer fit, or any other “thing” that you have to manage make up clutter.

Eleanor Brownn, Self-Care Coach

Clutter is not just physical stuff. It's old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits. Clutter is anything that does not support your better self.

— Eleanor Brownn, Self-Care Coach

Other examples of clutter can include anything that:

  • Does not have a place to land or live
  • No longer serves a purpose to you
  • Is broken or is in need of repair
  • Is messy
  • Is disorganized or chaotic
  • Is stagnant
  • Has become challenging to manage

Impact of Clutter on Mental Health

All of this physical, mental and emotional clutter can contribute to the inability to think clearly, which can contribute to stress and low energy.

Clutter can make it difficult to get things done, to find what you need, and to live in an orderly and efficient manner. When we spend time everyday looking for our keys or trying to find that one pair of pants, we can become frantic and stressed, allowing this negative daily energy to build up over time.

Spending time sifting through physical clutter to find something can take up a large amount of time, potentially taking time away from other important tasks and self-care routines.

Excessive Clutter

When physical clutter becomes excessive, it can threaten to mentally and physically entrap an individual in dysfunctional home environments, which contribute to personal distress and feelings of displacement and loneliness.

Your home should be your sanctuary, a safe place where you can take time to unwind, but when your home is filled with physical clutter, it can lead you to feel that your home is your enemy rather than your sanctuary, which can overall negatively affect your well-being.

Clutter Can Impact Your Social Life

When we have a house filled with clutter, we may have difficulty using this space to do things we enjoy such as practicing yoga or crafting. We may also be embarrassed to invite guests over which can drastically impact our social life, creating feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.

If you find yourself having trouble throwing things away or feeling overwhelmed with the amount of stuff you have in your home, you most likely have too much physical clutter in your life.

When Clutter Leads to Hoarding

Physical clutter can become an obsession—an obsession to need more material things in order to fill an empty void. Sometimes we may find ourselves surrounded by so much stuff that we cannot bear to get rid of because they have some sort of sentimental value or can potentially bring us satisfaction in the future.

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

Individuals with hoarding disorder will save random items and store them without any type of organizational pattern to the point that their environment can become hazardous.

In most cases, individuals with hoarding disorder will save items that have sentimental value or items they feel they will need in the future. Hoarding disorder can cause problems in nearly every aspect of someone’s daily life including romantic relationships, professional obligations and social obligations.

Negative Consequences of Hoarding

Potential consequences of serious hoarding include safety and health concerns, such as fire hazards, tripping hazards and health code violations. It can also lead to relationship conflicts, isolation, and the inability to perform daily chores such as cooking and bathing.

Someone who hoards may exhibit the following:

  • Inability to throw away possessions
  • Severe anxiety when attempting to discard items
  • Difficulty organizing possessions
  • Distress or embarrassment about the number of personal possessions
  • Suspicion of other people touching items
  • Fear of running out of an item or of needing it in the future
  • Functional impairments, including loss of living space, social isolation, family or marital discord, and financial difficulties

Not everyone who has clutter in their home will have a hoarding disorder, but it is difficult to talk about the mental health consequences associated with clutter without addressing hoarding.

Removing Clutter From Your Life

We may spend hours, days, or even weeks making to-do lists and buying organizational bins to help manage the clutter but that never really helps us feel better about our mental or emotional state, why is that?

In reality, it is not about the “stuff” but rather it is about the underlying reasons of why that “stuff” is there? Are you holding onto negative emotions? Are you trying to keep a memory alive? Why is this “clutter,” whether it is physical objects or mental space overtaking your life? Why are you hanging onto this stuff?

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Removing Clutter

During the re-organization process it is important to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is working well in your life right now and what is not working well in your life right now?
  • What is causing you to feel overwhelmed?
  • How is this clutter preventing you from moving forward in your life?
  • Are there parts of your life where you are currently not in charge of making decisions?
  • Is there clutter that you are managing that is not serving you a purpose?
  • Have you thought about getting rid of the clutter?
  • Do you feel anxiety in your home because you have too much stuff?
  • What is the first step you can take to eliminate this “clutter?"

6 Steps to Eliminating Physical Clutter in Your Home

Below is a list of six ways you can reduce the amount of clutter in your living space.

Toss Out the Trash

Go through every room in your home and throw away papers, crusty cosmetics, expired food, and broken gadgets. Anything of value that you do not use can be donated or recycled.

Reduce and Recycle

If you have clothes that do not fit, shoes you never wear, furniture that is taking up too much room, or anything else that does not bring you value but could be used by others, donate it, sell it or pawn it. A good rule of thumb is that if you have something in your closet that you have not worn or used within a year, then consider donating it.

Separate Your Wardrobe By Season

A messy closet is overwhelming and storage space is hard to come by. Maximize your closet and dresser. This will make choosing what to wear much simpler by storing all out-of-season items in under-the-bed bins or in plastic storage totes. When seasons change, you can simply switch out your wardrobe.

Avoid Buying Multiples of Things

Do you really need more than one pair of snow boots or eight sets of dishes? It is enticing to “stock up on things” when they are on sale but in reality, do you really need that many boxes of toilet tissue all at once? Buy what you need at the time to avoid clutter in your home.

Additionally, if you replace an old item, make sure to get rid of that old item to make more space for the new one.

Do a Light Cleaning Everyday

Try to spend 10 minutes a day tidying up. This can mean cleaning a toilet, emptying the dishwasher or vacuuming one room in your home.

By spending 10 minutes each day cleaning, you are able to keep up with the house chores without feeling like you have to spend seven hours on a Saturday detailing your home.

This will increase the likelihood that you will have people over more often and will really enjoy your home—live like you really appreciate your newly beautified haven and you’ll automatically be more likely to maintain it.

Adopt the Philosophy of Feng Shui

The mindset and philosophy of feng shui are to arrange pieces in your physical life, whether it is your home or office, to help balance the natural world. The goal is to harness and establish equilibrium and peace between you and your physical environment.

The commanding position of the room is the focal point of the room or where you spend the majority of your time in that room. For example, the living room's commanding position is the couch, the kitchen's commanding position is the stove and the bedroom's commanding position is the bed.

The goal is to place furniture in the commanding position, furthest from the door in a diagonal position. These three parts of your house are critical representations of your life. The bed stands for you, the desk is an extension of your career, and the stove represents your wealth and nourishment.

Removing Mental Clutter

Below are some ways in which you can remove mental clutter in the attempt to improve your overall well-being:

  • Do a digital detox: Take a break from social media, turn off your phone notifications, delete any unnecessary apps on your phone, and limit screen time on the computer and television.
  • Keep a strong support system: Your friends and family who support you are important so keep them close and rely on them. If you have people in your life who exhibit negative energy or who bring you down then it is time to get rid of them. Toxic relationships are one of the biggest dictators of mental clutter.
  • Adopt healthy lifestyle decisions: Exercise daily, avoid sugary and processed snacks, drink lots of water, limit alcohol and caffeine, and adopt a healthy sleep routine.

Indulge in Retail Therapy Without the Clutter

Many of us enjoy shopping as it can often result in a surge of dopamine bringing us feelings of joy; however, retail therapy often results in buying unnecessary things that end up sitting on a shelf in our home creating clutter.

Instead of buying for ourselves, we can still reap the feel-good feelings of retail therapy by buying for others. Buying gifts for others is a way of giving that actually makes you feel better, especially when you are buying for a loved one. Humans are social creatures and we, therefore, thrive on having people around us, in particular happy people.

"We've shown in our research that giving money to others actually does make people happier," says Michael Norton, an associate professor of marketing at Harvard Business School and author of the best-selling book, Happy Money: The Science of Smart Spending.

"One of the reasons is that it creates social connections. If you have a nice car and a big house on an island by yourself, you're not going to be happy because we need people to be happy. But by giving to another person, you're creating a connection and a conversation with that person, and those things are really good for happiness."

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Article Sources
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