The Clutter In My House Is Spiraling Out Of Control

Piles Of Stuff Just Might Be What Sends Me Over The Edge

Portrait Of A Shocked Woman
Scary Mommy and AndreyPopov/ ozgurdonmaz/Getty

Piles just might be what sets me over the edge.

There are piles of school papers and art projects on the kitchen table. Piles of mail on the counter. Piles of folded laundry in the hallway. Piles of dirty clothes just about everywhere. There are piles of clutter freaking everywhere and it’s driving me absolutely mad.

Yet for some reason, I haven’t been able to bring myself to do anything about it. I have no time or energy to organize it and then it exacerbates my anxiety and makes me crabby and round and round we go. I stare at the same piles every day and rage. With the school year ending, the piles seem to be breeding.

I don’t know about you, but my clutter-induced anxiety has been on the brink for the past year. When the pandemic hit, my home – the place that is supposed to be a safe haven – shifted to something along the lines of classroom/library/rec center/mess hall/gymnasium/office. What used to be typical a-family-lives-here messiness became a certified disaster zone. With piles of stuff everywhere.

There are some folks who are able to just roll with this – to embrace the “messiness of life.” I am not one of those people.

I’m not a clean freak, for sure (one look at all the dog fur and dust bunnies along my floorboards will prove that), but clutter and extra “stuff” drive me absolutely bonkers. To make it worse, clutter is a major trigger for my anxiety. Just thinking about “too much stuff” makes me uncomfortable.

I’m not alone in this either.

According to psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter, clutter can trigger anxiety for several reasons. It “bombards our minds with excessive stimuli” and distracts us, making it harder to focus. Clutter makes us feel like our work is never done (OMG, I feel this on a spiritual level), and it can make it harder to do simple things, like find our keys or our kid’s class t-shirt (true story).

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Of course, what is considered clutter or “too much stuff” is different for everyone. I’m on the minimalist-ish end of the spectrum so even a little clutter sets me over the edge. For others, it might be something else. What matters is understanding what your own tolerance is and how it impacts your mental health.

Knowing that clutter is a trigger for my anxiety, I try to keep “the piles” under control. I don’t hesitate to throw things in the trash. I donate lots of clothes (maybe that’s what happened to that missing class t-shirt?) and I ask my family to pitch in. But no one in my house seems as bothered by all of this “stuff” as much as me.

Research supports this too. For instance, UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families found a link between higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in females and clutter, but the same wasn’t true for men. Obviously, there are exceptions but generally men just don’t seem to be as bothered by clutter as women. Must be nice, huh?

Lately, I can feel the clutter spiraling out of control. That tends to happen at the end of the school year when kids bring home all those gems they’ve been working on. But this year, it’s been even worse. Overwhelmed with work and a calendar full of youth sports events and social outings (we’re making up for lost time during the pandemic), I don’t have the time or energy to get it under control. Which just feeds my anxiety, which makes me feel even more ragey and overwhelmed so more shit piles up. Rinse and repeat.

If you feel like you’re drowning in piles too, experts share the following tips for getting thing to a more comfortable place (which is, obviously, different for everyone):

– Have a vision for the space. Do you want it to be calm and open? Or do you want it to be filled with family mementos? Personally, I want a kitchen free of random baseball cards and cereal boxes.

– Make a decision. Decide whether you really need all those colored pencils or the binders. (You probably don’t.) Give yourself permission to toss that drawing your second grader brought home six months ago and has forgotten about since.

– A little bit at a time. Instead of cleaning the whole house in one fell swoop, “create “a pocket of order,” Cindy Glovinsky, MSW, a psychotherapist and professional organizer in Ann Arbor, Mich., who wrote “Making Peace with the Things in Your Life.” This one is my personal favorite, because it aligns with my “one small thing” approach to dealing with overwhelm.

The past year has been absolutely brutal with a capital B, and the clutter-induced anxiety is out of control. I have no expectations of getting it all under control. My sons’ room is a disaster zone and no amount of nagging is going to fix that. But I don’t want to live in this clutter-anxiety-rage cycle any more. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna pour some wine, blast some ’90s rap music, and do a little rage cleaning (read: toss shit in the garbage). It’s time to get this clutter-induced anxiety under control.