How Decluttering Can Help You Control Your Anxiety

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.

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.

The link between anxiety and clutter

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 organised 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, co-author of Mind Over Mood and director of the Anxiety and Depression Centre, 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, 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.”

Curtailing the clutter — and the related anxiety

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 organisation.” 

It’s not purely about lack of knowledge about organisation; 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 realise it; or fear of being wasteful,” says Steketee.

The good news is that you don’t have to let those fears paralyse 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.

Get prepped

There’s no shame in asking for a little help; in fact, it’s recommended. If you don’t have the budget (or desire) to work with a professional organiser one-on-one, at least read a book. You may want to check out The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, Stuff by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, or Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger.

Start small

Take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s normal to feel like you’re facing an impossible task. Don’t try to clean up everything at once, but do start taking some baby steps that will propel you into action. Pick one cluttered but relatively small area — maybe it’s your fridge or your shoe closet — and tackle that first.

If you feel anxious while you’re in the midst of decluttering, try to do it in short bouts of time, whether it’s 15 minutes once a week or whatever works for your schedule. You should be able to slowly expand the duration of your cleanup sessions over time, says Greenberger.

This article originally appeared on Prevention

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