Tidying up: when clutter takes its mental toll

February 05, 2019 | by Carolyn Wass, MSW

Have you noticed that, when a room is cleared of clutter, you feel mentally clear?

It’s an interesting connection. The current trend toward decluttering one’s space inspired by Marie Kondo’s book and Netflix show, “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” is a healthy step toward better mental health. Clear homes, clear minds.

You might not think twice (or even notice) the clutter building up in your home. Junk mail piled up on the counter, bottles and cups and toiletries covering the bathroom counter. Piles of books that don’t fit on shelves gathering dust on the floor. Unused gift or shopping bags stacked on a side table. Knick-knacks everywhere.

These are the situations Kondo urges people to pick apart, mindfully sift through the stuff to decide what “sparks joy,” and toss the rest.

After all, too much clutter can make it difficult to be happy in your own home (or workplace). When there are four loads of laundry piled up and the kids’ toys are taking over every room, it’s hard to relax or concentrate on daily tasks. That’s when anxiety, frustration, irritation, distraction or depression can take hold.

Clutter doesn’t affect everyone this way. Some people feel fine with every surface of their desk covered. For them, the clutter doesn’t create anxiety.

Also, accumulating clutter doesn’t necessarily make you a hoarder. Hoarders often live in homes that are so cluttered, it interferes with normal functioning. They have trouble discarding things that most other people would get rid of, and getting rid of items often causes distress. Know the signs of hoarding.

Clutter can feel overwhelming. When there’s a lot to deal with, it’s difficult to figure out where to start.

The more immediate tasks usually take precedence, and the clutter remains. How does one even find the time to tackle all that stuff?

If the clutter in your life is sapping your mental energy, here are four steps to start tackling it:

  • Take on a small piece of the problem at a time.
  • Consider how often you use various items in your home, from books to clothes to kitchen appliances and dishes.
  • Be mindful — think about what each item means to you.
  • If it’s not emotionally or physically useful (or hasn’t been used in months), clear it out.

The techniques that Kondo discusses can be carried over into other aspects of our lives, not just in decluttering our home. It’s also important to ask, do the people you’re in relationships with bring you joy?

In the end, it’s not about figuring out what you can and can’t discard, it’s figuring out what brings you genuine happiness in life. By discovering what these things are, we can live a more fulfilling life and focus on the things that bring us joy.

If you know someone with a hoarding disorder, attempts to de-clutter their homes without treating the underlying problem usually fail. Support is available to help individuals gradually learn to discard unnecessary items with less distress, increase motivation to change behavior, and learn to improve skills such as organization and decision-making.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, you may need some extra support. Talk to your doctor about seeking help from a professional.

Get support from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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