It's nearly impossible for me to relax, let alone not panic, when my home is messy. The visual clutter makes me feel so distracted and anxious that I have to clean before I can do anything else.
It's as if the cluttered surfaces, overflowing hamper, and dirty dishes are working in unison to send an SOS signal to my brain saying, "Get to work!"
It's different for my husband. He can relax right around the clutter without the same unsettling sense of urgency. Knowing that he'll get to it at some point is good enough. In comparison, my compulsion to clean can definitely appear dramatic, even neurotic.
I've wondered, can clutter actually cause anxiety or are anxious people less tolerant of clutter? And why do I seem more susceptible to it than my husband?
Your Brain on Clutter
In Psychology Today, psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter explained how clutter can significantly affect our stress levels, without us even realising it. "Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren't necessary or important," she said.
She goes on to explain that clutter makes it difficult to relax physically and mentally because it signals our brain to keep working. Instead of prioritising quality time with family or accomplishing an important task, like paying bills, Boug Carter said that clutter distracts us from the things we should be focusing on.
We feel anxious because we can't gauge how long it will take us to get the job done. We experience guilt and embarrassment when people "drop by" unannounced or with little notice — even the thought of it can be triggering. If we're wasting time searching for something in the midst of clutter, our stress levels soar.
Who Is Most Affected by Clutter?
A study conducted by UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) backs this theory up, but takes it a step further. After studying the home lives of 32 middle-class, dual-income families with two to three children ages 7 to 12 in Los Angeles, a team of professional archaeologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists found that mothers were most affected by their family's clutter. Managing the volume of their household's possessions was actually elevating their levels of stress hormones.
While the study doesn't explain the reasons mothers are more affected than fathers, I can only suspect that the mental load plays a huge part. When mums ultimately feel responsible for taking care of a neglected chore or fear that an unexpected or last-moment house visit is an open call for judgment, it makes sense that we would feel more burdened by the clutter.
Tips For Conquering Clutter
Since constant stress can take a physical toll, I've realised that martyrdom can be more destructive than helpful. When I'm burned out by taking on too much, everyone can feel it. My fuse is much shorter and I'm not nearly as present.
Instead, being honest with my husband when I'm feeling overwhelmed, communicating what I need help with, and compromising on a household decluttering and chore system has helped. If you want to feel lighter and less stressed at home, these tips will steer you in the right direction!
- Team up with your partner for a ruthless purge, getting rid of anything unused or unneeded in every room in your home.
- Find a place for everything, grouping like things together to become more organised. Use lidded boxes and baskets, trays, and furniture with drawers to keep things out of sight.
- Recruit your family. Split the job up with your partner and kids, having them tackle the spaces they use most.
- Set a time limit for yourself so that cleaning and organising doesn't overtake your free time. The 20:10 method has been a lifesaver for me!
- Introduce fun. Wireless headphones and a good podcast episode or audiobook help make the most tedious chores fly by.
- Save things that require deep cleaning, like toilet and tub scrubbing, for the weekend when you have more time.