Why Clutter Can Be So Bad For People With Anxiety (And What To Do About It)

If a messy home makes you stressed and overwhelmed, read this.
A cluttered or disorganized home can be a major source of stress, especially for some people with anxiety.
Claus Christensen via Getty Images
A cluttered or disorganized home can be a major source of stress, especially for some people with anxiety.

Stacks of mail and papers cover your desk. Piles of clothes accumulate on the chair in your bedroom. Makeup, toiletries and other products crowd your bathroom counter. Toys are strewn across the living room floor. For some people, a messy home is a minor nuisance or something they can easily overlook. For others, it can have a significant impact on their mental health.

As Wendy Wisner, who has an anxiety disorder, explained in a blog post for the site Scary Mommy, “Cleaning up clutter is not just another thing on the to-do list like packing my kids’ lunches, changing the car’s oil, or making my next dentist appointment. It’s a full-on ragey kind of panic.”

“It’s the feeling that I literally can’t breathe with all the clutter that’s filling our house,” she said. “It’s a feeling that the world is a chaotic place that I can’t control, and all of that chaos is represented by the loud, unruly, angsty wreck that is my living room.”

Research seems to back this up, too. A small 2009 study found that women who described their homes using words like “cluttered,” “messy” and “chaotic” had levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) that did not show a normal, healthy decline over the course of the day. Rather, their cortisol levels followed a flatter pattern that’s been associated with greater chronic stress and has been linked with other negative health outcomes.

A 2016 survey of people with mild to severe issues with clutter found that their disorderly living spaces had a negative impact on their perception of their home and satisfaction with their lives overall.

It’s important to recognize that, when excessive, clutter can be both a cause and effect of mental health troubles, said Cindy Glovinsky, who worked as both a psychotherapist and professional organizer during her career. Many of her clients with more severe clutter issues had been diagnosed with conditions like depression, attention deficit disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“And people who are grieving can sometimes go through a temporary period of clutter and disorganization that improve as they begin to heal from their loss,” said Glovinsky, author of “Making Peace With the Things in Your Life.”

Why Clutter Can Trigger Anxiety

Generally speaking, our external environment can have a strong influence over how we feel internally and how we behave. Think about how energized you feel at a concert or sporting event or how calm you feel when you hike through nature, said Gina Delucca, a clinical psychologist at Wellspace SF in California.

“Our environment can affect our mood for better or for worse, and different people may respond differently to certain environments — for example, some people may feel annoyed by the crowds of people at a musical festival,” she added. “Your home environment is no different.”

Similarly, individuals have different levels of tolerance when it comes to clutter and disorganization, Glovinsky noted. Those prone to anxiety (or people with the highly sensitive personality trait) may have a lower threshold for messiness in their surroundings than the average person.

“Some people actually like a certain amount of chaos in their environment, as it makes them feel freer and more creative, while others feel overwhelmed by even a small amount of clutter,” Glovinsky said. “Those who feel overwhelmed may become anxious or depressed as a result.”

“It’s the feeling that I literally can’t breathe with all the clutter that’s filling our house.”

- Wendy Wisner, associate editor at Scary Mommy

If you fall into the latter camp, then a home that’s in disarray can make you feel mentally overloaded, drained or lacking control — unpleasant sensations that are all too familiar to people living with anxiety.

“For many people, their home is a sanctuary away from the overstimulation of the world and its daily operations,” said Kim Strong, a licensed clinical social worker at Wellspace SF. “A messy or disorganized environment at home can be a tangible reminder of this chaos and may cause a feeling of being out of control or anxious. Looking around at a messy room can be a reminder of a long to-do list, unfinished tasks or, in general, can make moving around and finding things one needs more difficult.”

Decluttering, however, can be a productive way for some people to channel their anxious energy.

“It may also serve as a nice mental distraction, taking your attention away from whatever you were anxious about in the first place,” Delucca said. “You may feel more in control afterward and experience a feeling of accomplishment or satisfaction, which can help to alleviate some of your anxiety.”

How To Deal If A Messy Home Triggers Your Anxiety

Experts offer advice for people whose anxiety is greatly affected by the state of their living space.
PeopleImages via Getty Images
Experts offer advice for people whose anxiety is greatly affected by the state of their living space.

When you live alone, it may be easier to keep your home up to your personal cleaning or organizational standards. Perhaps you already have your own system in place. But if you don’t, The Spruce, a home decor and improvements website, recommends decluttering your space room by room. Or, you can break the process down into even smaller chunks by just focusing on your bedroom closet, for example.

Before you start, create five baskets: one for stuff that needs to be put away, one for items that need to be recycled, one for things that need to be repaired or cleaned, one for trash and one for donations. Then tackle each room part by part, making sure you’ve fully completed one area before moving on to the next.

Once you’ve gotten things organized, it does take some effort to keep them that way. Strong recommends employing a mantra like “finish the task” whenever you do everyday things like open the mail or change clothes.

“This helps to ensure that the junk mail actually gets thrown away or recycled and the dirty laundry makes it into the hamper,” she said.

However, when you share your home with other people — be it a significant other, roommate, kids or other relatives — it can be more of a challenge to maintain a level of order that doesn’t put your anxiety into overdrive. Below, experts share some advice to help you cope.

Have a conversation with your partner or housemates about your individual levels of tolerance for clutter.

Talk about what you need in order to keep your mental health in check. Ask them to share their preferences, too.

“If theirs is different than yours, approach this as a problem that you can solve together so everyone’s needs can be respected and met as much as possible,” Glovinsky said.

Ask for help — and be specific about what you need.

Do you feel like you have more household tasks than you have time to complete? Are you constantly cleaning up after your spouse or kids? Even if you find organizing therapeutic, it can be hard to manage the mess all by yourself when you already have a lot on your plate. If that’s the case, then you probably need others in your home to pitch in.

“Ask your family members, partner, or roommates to help out a bit instead of trying to do it all on your own,” Delucca said. “Be specific on which tasks you’d like others to do, especially if they’re not in the habit of taking things upon themselves automatically. By not saying anything, you may build up frustration and resentment on top of your anxiety, leading you to feel worse.”

If it’s within your budget, consider hiring a housekeeper to come every so often. “Sometimes the extra cost can be worth the time and energy you get back in return,” Delucca said.

Keep at least one room super neat and organized, if you can.

That way, when the rest of the house is a mess, you have somewhere you can escape from the chaos — “even if that’s the bathroom,” Glovinsky said.

If you have kids, teach them how to tidy up.

Expect that children — younger ones, in particular — will require some (or a lot of) hand-holding in this department.

“Help the children to learn to pick up toys during ‘clean-up time’ and to keep their possessions in their own rooms or other designated areas,” Glovinsky said. “No child was born knowing this, and some children need more guidance than others. Adults too often assume that cleaning a room is easy for a child when it may not be.”

You can also try turning straightening up into a game, Strong suggested. Set a timer and have the kids put as many things away in their proper place as they can before the buzzer goes off.

“You’d be surprised how much you can actually get done in just 60 seconds,” she said. “The emotional benefits — like less anxiety — of a clean and organized place can be achieved in a small amount of time, indeed.”

Take a deep breath and accept that your home may not be as neat as you’d like it to be.

Your dream of having one of those Instagram-worthy, immaculately organized living spaces may not be realistic for you — at least not right now. Try to make peace with that if you can.

“For example, if you have small kids, chances are things will always be a little messy,” Delucca said. “By practicing acceptance and letting go, we can sometimes offer ourselves some relief from our anxiety and the pressure we put on ourselves to have things a certain way, rather than constantly trying to control and fight against our reality.”

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