Mess & Stress: The Science Behind Your Clutter

Look around you right now. Can you see the floor or is it covered in laundry? Are you reading this while sitting at a…

Look around you right now. Can you see the floor or is it covered in laundry? Are you reading this while sitting at a desk stacked high with clutter? So maybe you are not quite at hoarder status, but if you find yourself struggling to keep your external space organized, it might reflect a similar internal struggle.

Getting to the Bottom of the Pile

Some people are nurtured into a messy lifestyle. They grow up in families where a disorganized space is the norm. Others may find the busyness of life or personal circumstances leads to neglect in places like their home, workspace or vehicle. Maybe it feels like there is too much to do and too little time, so neatness is sacrificed for a higher priority. You may feel the whole process of keeping order overwhelming, tiring and pointless. Won’t it just get messy again anyway?

But there is a benefit to making order a priority in your life. Studies point out that a clean space can contribute to better cognition and better sleep. It is also physically safer and more life-efficient. Just as clutter in your physical space can signify clutter in your mental space, order around you can be a sign of an orderly mind. Living, and attempting to function, in messy spaces can also increase anxiety. And who needs extra anxiety??

What comes first – the mess or the stress?

Much like the age-old question about the chicken or the egg, identifying if your stress leads to mess or the other way around can be a challenge.  Those who struggle with anxiety, depression or other factors that contribute to a lack of motivation may also tend to struggle with keeping their spaces tidy. Though others may dismiss these people as just being lazy. In other words, your mess might not be the cause of anxiety or depression, but it might be a symptom of it.

Getting out of the Dumps

So, what do you do about the mess?

If you believe that your clutter problem might be due to an internal struggle, try addressing the root of the problem. This might mean some self-reflection, confronting a person or thing you have been avoiding or seeking the help of a mental health professional. Do what it takes to function at your best.

But whether the mess is the cause or symptom, anyone can benefit from clearing the clutter. If this task seems too daunting. Try the following tips:

  • Focus. Find one project to tackle and stick with it. Don’t allow yourself to try to achieve too many organization goals at once. Give yourself time-limited breaks for long tasks and get right back to it. Leave distractions like cellphones and computers in the other room.
  • Stash it away. Your brain is taking in everything it sees and it can be overwhelming. Neatly store items that you do not use often out of sight. Try organizing the items that you frequently use in easily accessible but less visible places.
  • Put it back. After you gain order, don’t make it hard on yourself. It may seem easier in the short-term to just throw that one item on the floor, but over time you will find yourself right back in the middle of a mess. Give “future you” a break and put it back where you found it. You’ll find that creating and maintaining order over time helps you breathe a little easier.

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Contributed by

Shani Bell, MAAT, LPC-Intern

Supervised by Dr. Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT-S, LPC-S

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