Oh, clutter. You make us crazy. 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.
Why do we have problems with clutter?
“Clutter and hoarding behavior are very common problems,” says clinical psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD. Part of the problem is cultural: We live in a society that’s driven by consumerism, and many people amass things that they don’t need simply because acquiring stuff is what Americans do, he says.
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.
Why is it so hard to let it go?
The word clutter actually comes from the middle English word “clotter.” 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.
“Making decisions about ‘What do I do with this item now?’ is sometimes difficult,” Dr. Bea says. “Some people feel extremely stressed by this dilemma.”
If you struggle to make decisions about what to do with an object once you’re done with it, you might escape the tense situation by just not deciding. Once you get into a habit of this, things start to pile up, and before you know it, there’s a clutter problem.
Dr. Bea identifies a number of thoughts that people often have that can lead to indecision, including:
- Maybe I will need this someday.
- This reminds me of a special moment in my life.
- I spent good money on this.
- Maybe I will fit into this outfit again someday.
The more you struggle with these thoughts, the more likely you are to have a clutter problem.
How does clutter take its toll on your health?
Clutter can impact your health in many ways, and some of them might surprise you. Clutter can cause you to be:
- Chronically distracted. “Existing in a cluttered environment taxes our brains because the cluttering objects compete for our attention,” Dr. Bea says. As a result, you become chronically distracted and, as Dr. Bea describes it, an “involuntary multi-tasker” — your focus shifts 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.
- Overwhelmed. You may experience heightened anxiety, self-criticism and shame about the state of your house. These feelings can contribute to depression.
- 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.
- Challenged when you try to clean. Having too much stuff makes it difficult to dust and vacuum, which can make allergies and asthma worse.
- At risk if there’s ever a fire. In severe cases, clutter can create a fire hazard when your stuff blocks exits or there are 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:
Enlist some help. “Getting some outside assistance to help with the decision-making process is one of the most effective ways to overcome the stress associated with clutter,” says Dr. Bea. This might be a family member, friend, or paid decluttering consultant.
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.”
Break it down. 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.
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.
Have a plan. 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.
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.
“Individuals with hoarding problems rarely seek help on their own,” says Dr. Bea. “It is often a family member concerned or frustrated by the hoarding that compels the person to treatment.”
People with hoarding problems often have strong rationalizations to support their problematic habits. “Folks with clutter are less likely to defend themselves so strongly,” says Dr. Bea. In other words, if you’re able to identify that your clutter is a problem, you’re probably not a hoarder.