Sometimes I’ll be standing in my living room at the end of the day, the floor covered end to end in toys; half-filled cups and empty, crumb-laden plates and bowls on the coffee table; my kids and husband’s dirty clothes crumpled into every nook and cranny — and I will literally start to have a panic attack.
I’m not sure if it’s fatigue, rage, sensory overstimulation, or all of the above, but my reaction to clutter is more than just frustration or a healthy eye-roll. I start to feel like the room is closing in on me. I feel a sense of doom, depression, and desperation. I know it sounds extreme, but it’s really what happens. Not every day. But some days. Often enough that it’s definitely “a thing” for me.
When I shared my “clutter causes me anxiety” story in a post for Scary Mommy a few months ago, I was unprepared for the reaction it got from others. I received many personal emails and messages from women who felt exactly as I did, and who were relieved to know that they weren’t the only ones who found clutter anxiety-inducing.
They were happy to know that their almost primal urge to get rid of the clutter didn’t mean that they were “crazy,” and that maybe, just maybe, being a “neat freak” or “rage cleaner” was a kind of self-care that helped them cope with their anxiety and stress. It doesn’t mean that they are being dramatic or overzealous in their need to clean and organize their living space.
The reaction I got gave me a deep sense of relief as well, because it’s always reassuring to know that your idiosyncrasies and quirks are shared by others and actually aren’t always a “problem,” but just part of who you are and how you function. And being the health and science geek that I also can be, I decided to scope out the situation, to find out whether a cluttered home or space is actually proven to be a trigger of anxiety.
The answer is a resounding yes, at least according to psychologists.
As psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter explains in Psychology Today, “Messy homes and workspaces leave us feeling anxious, helpless, and overwhelmed. Yet, rarely is clutter recognized as a significant source of stress in our lives.”
Bourg Carter says that even though not many people recognize it, clutter most definitely can play a major role in stressing people the hell out. She explains that stress can affect us on many levels, including overwhelming us with sensory input that becomes difficult to manage. “Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important,” notes Bourg Carter.
Clutter also makes us unfocused, explains Dr. Bourg Carter, and sends messages to our brains that our work is “never done.” Additionally, it hinders us from creativity and productivity by “invading the open spaces that allow most people to think, brainstorm, and problem solve,” she explains.
Sounds freaking lovely, doesn’t it?
Honestly, I’m feeling stressed just thinking about how stressed-out clutter makes me. And as someone who has an anxiety disorder in the first place, more stress is the last thing I need.
Apparently, I’m not the only one. In an article for Psych Central, psychologist Audrey Sherman, Ph.D., says that among her patients who suffer from anxiety and depression, feelings of “disorganization and chaos” within their environments in a very common theme, one that is often overlooked.
Dr. Sherman writes: “Emotional baggage has a way of building up, and then expressing itself in an outward display of turmoil — as if a tornado had let loose in your brain and your surroundings.”
Damn. That “tornado” description is totally visceral and spot on.
Unsurprisingly, the relationship between clutter and anxiety has a female dominant component (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?). According to a study conducted by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families, women who live in cluttered homes have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Men, on the other hand, do not suffer from stress as a result of clutter in the home at nearly the same levels as women do.
The researchers did not know why that would be the case, but they surmised that it had something to do with the fact that women associated a happy home with one that is tidy and organized, whereas men just didn’t have those same types of expectations (hmm…ya think?).
In other words, the pressure is pretty squarely on us women to care about keeping our homes clean, to do all the upkeep, and also, to freak out about it when things are out of order. Lucky us.
All of this, of course, begs the question as to what we can do about the very real, proven, and recognized reaction to clutter that so many of us (primarily women) experience on a daily basis. Well, the good news is, besides throwing out all our family’s possessions, or burning the house to the ground, there are viable options out there for those of us who feel like the clutter is just too damn much and is causing undue stress and anxiety.
First, if you are feeling like your depression or anxiety about clutter (or anything) is making you unable to function, or just making you miserable, definitely address that with a therapist. All of us deserve to feel better, and that includes you too. Really.
But since the clutter itself can definitely contribute to anxiety, tackling that can actually make a difference for your mental health. If the clutter is out of control, it’s hard to see a way out (literally!), but you can start with small tasks (like one closet, one room, etc.) and trim down. You don’t have to go all KonMari about it all, but if you take a quick look through all the stuff, I guarantee that you will find many things you can easily let go.
As for the everyday clutter that piles up no matter what you do (that’s what really gets me), you’ve got to get other people in your house involved. I think part of the stress and rage of it all has to do with feeling like no one cares or even sees the clutter surrounding you. And I know it’s so much easier to just clean up other people’s stuff than beg them to do it, but you’ve got to insist on their participation. It’s a family affair.
Having a less cluttered environment benefits everyone, and the burden should not rest on the shoulders of one person in the household — most likely the one with the vagina.
Most of all, those of us in the “clutter causes anxiety” camp should remember that we are not alone. It’s not all “in our heads.” And we deserve some moments of clutter-free living — and for our feelings to be validated and taken seriously.
This article was originally published on