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A cluttered home can cause anxiety and depression, but there are strategies to declutter. Photo: Shutterstock

The mental dangers of a cluttered home, and how you can avoid the anxiety it causes

  • With so many sights, sounds, smells and sensations competing for our attention, it can be a challenge for the brain to process everything at once
  • A study shows that a messy home raises levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in women

Our surroundings have a bigger influence on our mental health than we think. Imagine the difference between living in a messy, disorganised space and an orderly, well-organised one. The first is likely to make you feel overwhelmed, frustrated and anxious, and the second, calm, safe and in control.

There’s a reason why being in cluttered spaces stresses us out. As amazing as it is, the human brain can only take in and process so much information from the external environment. With so many sights, sounds, smells and sensations competing for our attention, it can be a challenge for the brain to process everything at once.

But how is clutter linked to depression? Dr Esslin Terrighena, a psychologist at Mind Balance in Hong Kong’s Central district, says that clutter can make us feel frustrated by the way it invades our home, which, for many of us, is our safe space. However, we also do not know where to start getting rid of the clutter, so we feel helpless and overwhelmed.

If nothing gets done, the clutter builds up, which exacerbates the frustration. In addition, we may feel guilty for accumulating so many items, irritated when we cannot find what we need and waste time searching, trapped as the clutter accumulates, stifled as we cannot find inspiration, and embarrassed when friends see the mess.

“On top of this,” she continues, “our brains are trying to juggle all the stimuli in our environment, making it difficult for us to rest. Having many items around us can enhance our distress by reminding us of all the things we still have not accomplished – not just decluttering itself, but also reading all those books we bought or fixing that chair that broke 12 months ago.”

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Terrighena adds that the discomfort caused in the brain by overwhelming input may further trick the brain into thinking there is some sort of danger in our surroundings, triggering our anxiety. At a cognitive level, we may engage in negative self-talk, telling ourselves that we are incapable of decluttering our space. We may also find it harder to concentrate and remember things.

The science backs this up. A study published in 2010 in the journal Psychiatry Research confirmed a strong link between clutter and depression, more so than with other disorders. David Tolin, a psychologist who specialises in hoarding and who conducted the study, noted that hoarding participants reported higher levels of depression than control participants and participants with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Psychologist Dr Esslin Terrighena says clutter is strongly linked to depression, but you can break the cycle by getting organised and taking control over your space.

A later study, done by UCLA’s Centre of Everyday Lives and Families (CELF), revealed that women had elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, when surrounded by too many physical objects in their home; cortisol is associated with depressive and anxious symptoms. The study also found that men were not as emotionally bothered by mess and clutter, which created even more stress in the relationship.

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The irony about clutter is that it also makes us feel safe and secure. This is why we find it hard to part with objects that are meaningful to us, or items that have been in our possession for a while that we feel we must hold on to, ‘just in case’ (we think we will use them one day, but that day usually never comes).

“Despite the negative effects on our well-being, we may find ourselves clinging to the clutter as our new safety blanket, and in the worst-case, sliding deeper and deeper into a cycle of clutter and depression,” says Terrighena. “Such is the self-reinforcing nature of clutter.” To alleviate the anxiety and depression, we may even resort to buying more items, which only increases the clutter.

Terrighena believes that clutter is often a sign of underlying emotional issues that have yet to be dealt with. After all, there are many reasons why we hang on to things – for example, they remind us of happier times, like clothes we used to be able to fit into when we were slimmer; they may alleviate guilt, like religious paraphernalia; or they resemble someone we would like to be, perhaps an artist, which sees us holding on to art materials that we never use.

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“Our brains can adapt to continuous, unchanging input over time – for instance, when we have piles of paperwork stacked up all around us for weeks, our brains eventually will find these stacks less processing-worthy,” Terrighena points out. “However, as our relationship to clutter is often emotional, these items may remain salient for us, keeping them active and reducing the likelihood of adaptation.”

Sharon Lam, co-founder of Home Therapy, photographed at her flat in Tai Po. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Of course, all this doesn’t mean you have to toss out everything you own to be happy. The trick to decluttering is knowing what to keep and throw, and organising the items you do end up keeping.

Professional organiser Sharon Lam, founder of Home Therapy Hong Kong, has some excellent tips for decluttering. She suggests sorting through clothes, books and paper first, followed by items that have sentimental value. Only keep the ones that make you happy and that align with your current lifestyle.

Professional organiser Lam helps Hongkongers declutter their homes and offices.
Vertical hanging of clothes makes them more accessible and keeps your wardrobe tidy. Photo: Jonathan Wong

“Fold and store clothes vertically,” she advises. “This not only saves space but makes it easier to find what you’re looking for. Store accessories in drawers with dividers, and only hang up coats, suits and formal wear. As for name cards, photos and documents, digitise them by scanning or taking photographs of them. Only keep important documents like contracts or birth certificates – store these in a single folder and label them. In the kitchen, you’ll want to get rid of expired and duplicated items. Clear the counter and group the same categories of items into drawers or containers.”

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With space being so tight in Hong Kong, it’s also important to get the right furniture. Caroline Basham, founder and director of Caroline B Personal Management says that sometimes, buying a bed with storage below, or installing a 50cm deep raised floor may be all you need to organise what you own.

Decluttering may seem daunting but you don’t have to rush it.

Terrighena recommends clearing one room at a time and exploring all the reasons for holding on to certain things. She also suggests making the process fun and rewarding yourself as you get rid of items. When you’re done decluttering, you’re sure to notice the difference.

Caroline Basham of Caroline B Personal Management says that the right furniture can help you make use of small spaces more effectively.

“Decluttering can be empowering,” she says. “Parting with long-stored items may be an emotional process, but having formed new space to develop ourselves in can boost self-esteem, creativity and well-being. We may feel more organised and proud of ourselves. We may become more effective and productive as we are not distracted by clutter. We may become more calm and balanced as we can maintain our focus on one thing at a time. We may experience personal growth and development as the removed objects give us space to unfold. And together with exploring ourselves and letting go of physical clutter, we may be able to let go of deep-rooted challenges that have been causing us distress or contributing to dysfunctional behavioural patterns. This can have long-lasting positive effects on all areas of our lives.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The p e rils of h a ving a hoa rd menta lity