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Is It Clutter or Hoarding? How To Help With Both

How to clear your physical (and mental) space

Workplace office desk filled with stacks of cluttered paperwork.

Oh, clutter. You creep up on us so easily. You hide our registration renewal notice from the DMV under junk mail. You make it impossible to find a replacement light bulb so we buy another instead. You fill our closets with coats for all seasons (and sizes) and drawers with pencils and tchotchkes galore.

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If a problem with clutter seems overwhelming, don’t despair. The good news is that you can actually improve your health by getting rid of clutter — and it’s easier than you think.

Clinical psychologist Dawn Potter, PsyD, explains some of the health impacts that clutter may have, and how to know if you’re crossing over into the hoarding zone.

Why do we have problems with clutter?

Part of the problem is cultural: We live in a society driven by consumerism, and many people amass things they don’t need simply because acquiring stuff is embedded in our society.

Whether you feel like you must have the latest trends, engage in “retail therapy” to cheer yourself up or succumb to persuasive advertising, you may end up with a house full of items of questionable use.

And because our culture is so focused on acquiring things, many of us have trouble recognizing when we have enough — or too much.

How does clutter build up?

The word “clutter” actually comes from the Middle English word “clotteren.” You might say it can “clot” the flow of life, stopping you from using what you have and making it hard to identify what you really need.

If you struggle to decide what to do with an object once you’re done with it, you might escape the stressful situation by just … not deciding. Once you get into a habit of this, things can start to pile up, and before you know it, there’s a clutter problem.

There are a number of thoughts that people often have that can lead to indecision, including:

  • Maybe I’ll need this someday.
  • This reminds me of a special moment in my life.
  • I spent good money on this.
  • Maybe I’ll fit into this outfit again someday.

The more you struggle with these thoughts, the more likely you are to have a clutter problem.

What’s the difference between clutter and hoarding?

It’s a matter of severity. If your clutter is making it difficult for you or others to lead a normal lifestyle, or if it’s creating unhealthy living conditions, you may have a problem with hoarding.

“When a person with a hoarding disorder is faced with pressure — because often, they may be faced with pressure from other people to do it — to clean up and throw things out and get rid of things, they will feel emotional distress,” explains Dr. Potter. “They will have great difficulty, parting with things because a core feature of having a hoarding disorder is feeling this strong need to keep things just in case I need them.”

In other words, if you’re able to identify that your clutter is a problem, you’re probably not a hoarder.

On the other hand, having a clutter problem may just mean you haven’t gotten to the mess yet. And all it takes is that wake-up call from a friend or a family member that it’s time to clean up. Dr. Potter explains that, unlike hoarding, those with clutter in their lives aren’t intentionally keeping these items on purpose because they’re afraid of letting them go in case they need them in the future.

“They’re probably just not really all that focused on whether or not there’s clutter around,” Dr. Potter says.

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How does clutter take its toll on your health?

Whether the clutter is rooted in hoarding or just some procrastination, it can impact your health in many ways, and some of them might surprise you.

Clutter can cause you to be:

  1. Chronically distracted. “A cluttered environment can be very straining because of all of the objects competing for our attention,” Dr. Potter says. As a result, you become chronically distracted and are forced to constantly multi-task — shifting your focus from where you want it to the objects that surround you. This makes it hard to get anything done, whether you’re aiming for productivity or just wanting to relax and enjoy yourself.
  2. Overwhelmed. You may experience heightened anxiety, self-criticism and shame about the state of your house. These feelings can contribute to depression.
  3. Stressed out. Clutter doesn’t just impact your mental health, though. Feeling stressed about clutter can trigger the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can make physical health conditions worse.
  4. Challenged when you try to clean. Having too much stuff makes it difficult to dust and vacuum, which can make allergies and asthma worse.
  5. At risk if there’s ever a fire. In severe cases, clutter can create a fire hazard when your stuff blocks exits or large numbers of flammable items piled up.

What’s the best way to address clutter?

Here are some ways to cope with clutter and get it out of your life:

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Enlist some help

“Getting outside help with decision-making about clutter can be very effective,” notes Dr. Potter. “If you are emotionally attached to your things, it can be hard to let others into the process, so pick someone you trust.”

This is effective because your helper won’t experience the same high levels of tension associated with making tough decisions and discarding items, which can make the process faster and less stressful.

Set some rules

Especially if you’re going it alone, it helps to set some guidelines for yourself, and then stick to them. You may decide, “I need to throw out all magazines dated earlier than 2019” or “If I have not worn it in the last two years, it has to go.”

Have realistic goals

If your clutter problem affects your whole home, it’s unrealistic to expect that you’re going to resolve it in a day or two. Instead, find some way to break the task into smaller parts.

“Depending on how you’re motivated, you might do the biggest job first — the one that provides the most sort of visual change,” says Dr. Potter. “If you’ve got big stuff that you want to get rid of that provides that sense of relief immediately, or you might just start with something small and easy, like, ‘OK, I’m just going to take out all the recycling.’”

You may decide to go room by room, or focus on particular categories — dealing with all clothing in the house, or all the books, for instance.

Stay organized

Many decluttering experts advocate sorting items into three piles: Keep, Donate and Trash.

Make sure that at the end of each decluttering session, you put away the items you’re keeping and put the stuff you’re throwing out in the trash. If possible, take donations immediately to their destination, or at least schedule a time to do so.

How to seek help for hoarding

If you feel like you can’t get a handle on clutter and your attachment to holding onto items is a sign of hoarding, the good news is that admitting it to yourself is the first, powerful step. The road to addressing a hoarding issue can be difficult, so it’s important to take your time and treat yourself with compassion.

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Here are some tips to start getting your hoarding under control:

  1. Start slowly. The same as setting small goals when addressing clutter, it’s also important to take small steps forward when dealing with hoarding. Whether it’s you or a loved one who wants to address a hoarding problem, slow and steady wins the race.
  2. Seek out a therapist. If you’re dealing with hoarding, it means there’s both physical and emotional baggage that needs to be unpacked. A therapist or counselor can help you with dealing with any difficult feelings that may arise as you begin your cleanup process. “Often, some components of cognitive behavioral therapy are really helpful,” explains Dr. Potter. “We can help people try to challenge beliefs they have about whether or not they need an object.”
  3. Find a support group. You’re not alone. Finding a community of other people who are in a similar situation as you can make you feel less isolated.

The environment you live in can have an impact on your mood and health. A clean space can make a difference, and there are ways to begin decluttering your life, no matter the cause. In the same way that clutter builds up — slowly and gradually — it can also be addressed over time, but it’s important to take that first step.

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