Health Benefits of Decluttering, How Decluttering Can Help You Control Your Anxiety
Whether you have a serious anxiety issue or are just feeling a bit stressed, chances are all the “stuff” around you isn’t helping your nerves. Here’s how to take back some control. Saginaw Michigan
Declutter Your Life is a month-long initiative to help you manage stress and boost your health by learning the principles of banishing clutter and restoring a sense of order to your world.
For four years, when my anxiety was at its peak, I let my house transform from a spotless retreat into a maze of junk. It happened slowly: First, the carpets started to get dirty and mail stacked up on the kitchen counter. The fridge accumulated food, including expired items that should have been tossed weeks (months?) ago. Shopping bags lined the floor for ages until I got the energy to put purchases away. Clothes piled up on the bedroom floor for months.
It’s not exactly that I didn’t care, but I felt buried by day-to-day responsibilities—just trying to juggle work, a social life, and other basic tasks seemed like a struggle. I knew that the clutter in my home was building, but I couldn’t physically couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it.
Every now and then I’d have a “purge day,” when I’d reach a breaking point and feel compelled to take action. I’d gather as much clothing I could and go to thrift shops run by Goodwill, Plato’s Closet, or Habitat for Humanity. I made a deal with myself: If I donated a bunch of my stuff, I could get one new small thing from the same thrift shop. It turned decluttering into an exciting task rather than an obligation, and it was therapeutic. But it wasn’t enough.
The “stuff” always crept back in, and I felt trapped in a repetitive cycle of accumulating items, drowning in clutter, and purging. I was more anxious and depressed as ever, until one day I decided I had had enough. (Ready to get your home in order?
I didn’t want to be ashamed of my house or my living situation. I wanted to come home and relax instead of feeling even more stressed. So I resolved to get my life in order: I started keeping a journal, a planner, and multiple calendars. I replaced my habit of collecting items with the habit of checking calendars and recording notes about my activities. At the same time, I reached out to a group of friends and asked them to hold me accountable. They’d tell me if my place was starting to get out of control and nudge me to do something about it. And if I was thinking about buying something new or couldn’t decide if I ought to toss something out, I’d ask for feedback: Was my instinct rash or rational?
I’m not perfect, and I still slip back into old habits occasionally. But if I find myself faltering, I try not to obsess about it. I accept that I’m human and mistakes can (and will) be made, but as long as I keep trying that’s OK. Shopping bags don’t usually line my floors anymore, but when they do I deal with the mess and move on.
My story is just one example of how anxiety and clutter often go hand-in-hand. Of course, no one is suggesting that clutter itself can cause someone to develop an anxiety disorder, nor is getting more organized going to be a cure-all. But research suggests that clutter has a real impact on mood.
One 2009 study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, concluded that clutter sometimes translates to a homeowner feeling more depressed, especially if visitors comment on the mess. Other research, published in 2011 in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that clutter often means there are too many stimuli in your environment, which in turn makes it hard to focus.
Dennis Greenberger, PhD, co-author of Mind Over Mood and director of the Anxiety and Depression Center in Newport Beach, California, is quick to point out that it’s not the clutter itself that’s so damaging; it’s how you react to it.
“Someone who walks into a cluttered, messy office and thinks: ‘I pretty much know where everything is and I’m excited to do meaningful work I enjoy’ doesn’t really have a problem,” says Greenberger. Someone who steps into the same room and starts to fret about finding what they need or obsess over what others might think about the mess likely needs some help.
Gail Steketee, PhD, professor and dean emeritus at the Boston University School of Social Work, says it’s not unusual to find clutter overwhelming, and that’s when the anxiety kicks in. “People think, ‘How am I going to clean this up? Where do I start? What if I can’t decide what to let go of? Where should I put things I don’t want?’ And on and on.”
Okay, so you’ve determined that clutter is bad for your mental health: Now what?
Getting started is the hardest part. A Rubbermaid survey conducted by Russell Research in 2011 reported that 91% of participants are “so stressed, anxious and overwhelmed when their homes are cluttered that they don’t even know where to begin with home organization.”
It’s not purely about lack of knowledge about organization; emotions also play a strong role. “There’s often anxiety about letting go of objects—like magical thinking that as soon as you discard it, you will need it; fear of making a big mistake by letting go of something that is actually valuable but you don’t realize it; or fear of being wasteful,” says Steketee.
The good news is that you don’t have to let those fears paralyze you. Some ways to combat the clutter, despite your anxiety:
Think about how, exactly, clutter is harming you.
You might already believe that clutter is “bad,” but Steketee suggests taking some time to ponder how, specifically, it’s interfering with your top goals. What do you care about most: Having friends over? Being able to invite grandkids to play in the living room? Having a nice bedroom to enjoy reading in? Whatever it is, use it as motivation to get your act together and focus your initial decluttering efforts on the zones that would have the most impact on your life.
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