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Depression and clutter often go together it seems – each feeding off the other in a downward spiral – but why should having a messy house affect mental health?

pianoIf stress is our unconscious, primitive response to what the brain perceives as a threat – that sabre-toothed tiger licking its lips outside your cave perhaps – why should an empty crisp packet on the bedroom floor make us feel bad? Crisp packets aren’t inherently dangerous, and a bit of dust on the piano isn’t going to kill anyone, so what is going on? (See the video below for Robert Sapolsky‘s beautiful, crisp-free, explanation of the stress response.)

According to the website Unclutterer, the chaos of a cluttered environment restricts the ability to focus. Clutter also limits the brain’s ability to process information as well as it would in an uncluttered, organised, and serene environment. Unclutterer cites (frankly impenetrable) research published in the Journal of Neuroscience to support this.

A Psychology Today article suggests a few more reasons ‘mess causes stress’:

  1. Clutter makes it more difficult to relax, constantly signaling to the brain that our work is never done
  2. Clutter makes us anxious because we’re never sure what it’s going to take to get through to the bottom of the pile
  3. Clutter creates feelings of guilt (“I should be more organised”) and embarrassment, especially when other people unexpectedly drop by
  4. Clutter frustrates us by preventing us from finding things we need (keys, for example. Although I wouldn’t blame clutter alone for that particular problem)

However, somewhat surprisingly, I haven’t found any research claiming clutter causes stress or worsens depression. I will keep looking though.

how important is it to address clutter when tackling depression?

So, the evidence says clutter is associated with being distracted. Subjectively, it may also make us feel guilty, anxious and frustrated. Clearly, it is worth avoiding all these if possible. But the main association with actual stress seems to be that it rhymes with ‘mess’, which makes for nice headlines 🙂

As an issue to address in tackling depression then, clutter is probably not super important. Leave it until you feel pretty well – perhaps think of it as an advanced depression-busting tactic, not for beginners.

Rather than spending an enormous amount of effort decluttering, it might be better to develop tactics to cope with the specific problems clutter creates, ie

  • practice mindfulness to improve focus and counter the distractions of clutter
  • improve/deploy problem-solving skills and habit-forming skills so you can find stuff readily
  • work on negative feelings (eg with CBT) so you don’t feel so guilty and embarrassed about the state of your house

Oh, and pick up your metaphorical empty crisp packets! One a day if that’s all you can manage.

Here’s the great Robert Sapolsky on stress.

don’t stress about mess: decluttering can wait

5 thoughts on “don’t stress about mess: decluttering can wait

    1. Yes me too, but perhaps it’s not top priority. I was surprised not to find loads of research on how clutter affects depression – maybe it’s just that nobody has studied it.

      It’s such a huge effort to tidy up (am talking about myself here!) that it does make sense for me to concentrate on something else – like going for a jog – that is going to bring a big boost in mood.

      1. I would have thought a messy, cluttered house would lead to depression.
        Hmmm.
        Well, I do know many creative people function well in clutter!
        So true that exercise is one of the best ways to help feel better!
        I can’t jog, but my yoga or a walk helps so much!
        Good post!

  • Nice post! For me, getting rid of clutter is symbolic of having some control over my life. When my house gets cluttered, it’s like the stuff is overtaking everything (even though I put most of the stuff there!). Creating space in the house seems to correlate with feeling more spacious in my mind, even if it’s just because I don’t have that “What a mess!” thought buzzing in my head.

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