Depression and clutterÂ often go togetherÂ it seemsÂ – each feeding off the other in a downward spiral – but why shouldÂ having a messy house affect mental health?
If 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 bedroomÂ 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?Â (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 theÂ ability to focus. Clutter also limits theÂ brainâ€™s ability to process information as well as it wouldÂ in an uncluttered, organised, and serene environment. Unclutterer cites (frankly impenetrable) research published in the Journal of Neuroscience to support this.
AÂ Psychology TodayÂ articleÂ suggests a few more reasons ‘mess causes stress’:
- Clutter makes it more difficult to relax,Â constantly signaling to the brainÂ that our work is never done
- Clutter makes us anxious because we’re never sure what it’s going to take to get through to the bottom of the pile
- Clutter creates feelings of guilt (“I should be more organised”) and embarrassment, especially when other people unexpectedly drop by
- Clutter frustrates us by preventing us fromÂ 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 anyÂ research claimingÂ 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 beÂ 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.