Discover how clearing the clutter can help you calm your mind and the benefits of minimalism for anxiety. See how Marie Kondo helped me ‘clean up the mess to worry less’
The Clutter – Anxiety Cycle
This past year has been hard. It has been one ‘fret frenzy‘ episode after another. As a result, I’m not surprised that my house mirrors how I feel – chaotic and bombarded with ‘stuff’.
I can’t find the paperwork that was due last month; I’m tripping over toys scattered on every inch of the floor; and my clothes are heaped in piles. I almost had a nervous breakdown trying to find a matching pair of socks for my daughter. Where do all those single missing socks go? (my only consolation is that I have freed a lot of house elves)
Seeing the clutter is more than just frustrating. It makes me feel guilty (“how did I let it get so bad?”), trapped, desperate and on edge. It’s a vicious cycle: I get consumed by my health anxiety and I have a hard time keeping on top of things in the house; meanwhile, my house gets more and more cluttered and disorganized; then living in the mess leaves me feeling tired, anxious and even more hopeless.
How Clutter causes Anxiety
And I’m not the only one.
According to an article by Dr. Donna Ferguson from CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), seeing clutter around us can zap our energy and make us feel overwhelmed, distracted, and even annoyed. Clutter can be physical things (those storage boxes in my closet), digital (the thousands of unedited photos on my laptop), or emotional (the regrets I keep revisiting). Dr. Ferguson tells us that:
clutter can also cause feelings of stress, fatigue and depression. Stress can contribute to poor sleep, poor eating habits and general poor health.
Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter from Psychology Today explains 8 reasons clutter can cause us so much anxiety and stress:
- Clutter can overwhelm our senses (what we see, smell, and feel). As a result, we have “to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.”
2. Clutter is distracting and takes away our attention from the tasks we should focus on.
3. Clutter makes it hard to calm down and relax.
4. Clutter tells our brains that our ‘to-do’ list is never finished.
5. Clutter increases our anxiety because we don’t know “what it’s going to take to get through to the bottom of the pile.”
6. Clutter can make us feel guilty or embarrassed that our home is such a mess.
7. Clutter takes away the open spaces that encourage creativity and productivity.
8. Clutter can be very frustrating when you can’t find that missing paperwork!
Minimalism and Anxiety: The Benefits of Decluttering your Home
As I finally take a moment to breathe, the first thing I do to take back control is – clean. Cleaning is like a fresh start. Above all, it just feels good.
There is even science that confirms it.
A study from the journal, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, observed that woman who described their homes as “cluttered” or full of “unfinished projects” were more depressed and tired than those who viewed their homes as “restful” and “restorative”. But the results are even more interesting that that – the woman who lived in “cluttered” homes actually had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol (a chemical that in excess amounts has been shown causes anxiety).
And it’s true. Cleaning my house is one of my favorite ‘destressing’ activities. In fact, a recent study in the journal Mindfulness found that people who practiced “mindfully washing dishes” felt less nervous and more positively inspired. What did they do? They directed their thoughts away from the past or worries about the future and focused instead on the present. They took some time to feel the warmth of the water, enjoy the smell of the soap, and appreciate the shape and design of the dishes.
“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up”
Standing in the middle of my home, I’m fenced in by stacks of books, boxes of who knows what, and piles (and piles) of clothes. Wow. It is daunting. I know that minimalism can help my anxiety. But where do I even start?
If you have Netflix, you have probably seen Marie Kondo’s super-popular show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo or noticed her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up on the bestsellers list. She leads us through a step-by-step process she insists, once finished, means you will never have to live with clutter again. Sounds great to me!
A Philosophy for cleaning and living
Ms. Kondo’s book is more than just a ‘how to clean’ manual. It is a new philosophy for ‘living’. Consequently, tidying up is more than just having a cleaner house. She believes that getting rid of the clutter in your environment can dramatically transform your whole life.
When you put your house is order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.
Ms. Kondo teaches us to organize our homes so we are only surrounded by the things we love. Does it spark joy? If not, then let it go with gratitude. She writes:
My tidying process is not about decluttering your house or making it look neat on the spur of the moment for visitors. It’s about tidying up in a way that will spark joy in your life and change it forever.
She encourages us to live mindfully, to imagine who we want to be, and consequently only keep the things that inspire us towards our goals. In the process of tidying up our homes we therefore also clean up our psychological clutter. As a result we are able to let go of our past selves and journey towards a new and brighter future.
Unlike other methods that clean little by little and room by room, Ms. Kondo instructs us to organize our home by categories of items in one big cleaning marathon. (I’m not sure how that would work with two young girls, but we will see!) First is clothing, second books, then papers, “Komono” (miscellaneous items), and the last is the most difficult, sentimental items. Even those mementos should continue to spark ‘joy’ or they will keep us from moving forward.
Her process forces us to carefully consider every object in our home. We take a moment to hold each item. If it’s not needed and doesn’t speak to our heart, then she tells us to thank the item for its service and let it go. As a result, when we are finished we should be able to look at our space and feel peaceful. Next, everything gets its own place. Her book is full of helpful directions on storage. My favorite is her folding techniques. Yes, it does give me joy to see all my socks carefully folded together in pairs sitting neatly in my drawers.
I really enjoyed this book. I have to be honest. I haven’t been able to apply every principle and declutter my home ‘all in one go’ like she advises. I understand the reasons behind it but with two busy girls running under foot, I’m just not that talented. But, her approach has transformed the way I relate to my belongings and forced me to reflect on what is truly important to me.
Thank you Ms. Kondo for sparking ‘joy’.
If you have any concerns about your health, you should always consult your doctor or other qualified health-care provider and don’t disregard or delay seeking professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment because of anything you read on this site. Wishing you well.
Carter, Sherrie Bourg. “Why Mess Causes Stress: 8 Reasons, 8 Remedies.” Psychology Today, March 14, 2012.
Ferguson, D. “Spark Joy! How decluttering can help your mental health.” Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, April 5, 2019.
Hanely, A., Warner, A., Dehili, V. (2015) Washing Dishes to Wash the Dishes: Brief Instruction in an Informal Mindfulness Practice. Mindfulness, 6:1095-1103.
Marie Kondo. (2015). The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Unabridged Tantor Media, Inc.
Saxbe, DE., Repetti, R. (2010) No place like home: home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(1):71-81.