A clean, well-lighted place - Stanford BeWell (2023)

How less clutter can reduce stress

Clutter, for many of us, is a simple annoyance; but to others, it is a highly personal and sensitive topic. For some, parting with even the smallest scrap of paper can cause emotional turmoil. If there is a deeper fear of loss, scarcity, or if the clutter is used as self-protection from relationships, it may be a sign of a serious (but treatable) mental disorder known as hoarding (learn more: Help for hoarding disorder). But for those who are simply disorganized, yet feeling stressed by it, the following discussion may prove illuminating — because we all, as Hemingway said, long for “a clean, well-lighted place.” To learn ways we can get there, without letting the very effort overwhelm us, BeWell spoke recently with Patty Purpur de Vries, director of the Stanford Health Promotion Network of the Stanford Prevention Research Center.

What is the connection between a cluttered space and feelings of stress?

Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute published a study (The Journal of Neuroscience, 2011) which analyzed the effects of uncluttered and organized living. According to an article by Erin Doland which referenced the study, “Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.” Paraphrased in non-neuroscience jargon, this means that when your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain’s ability to process information. Clutter makes you distracted and unable to process information as well as you do in an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other physiological measurement tools to map the brain’s responses to organized and disorganized stimuli and to monitor task performance. The conclusions were strong: if you want to focus to the best of your ability and process information as effectively as possible, you need to clear the clutter from your home and work environment. This research shows that you will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better with an uncluttered and organized home and office.

According to researchers at UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families (CELF), clutter has a profound effect on our self-esteem and our moods. A study of 32 families found a link between high cortisol (stress hormone) levels of women who had a high density of household objects. Men were not as impacted by the piles, but researchers did not document the added stress of this area of potential tension or level of tolerance for clutter between men and women.

What are the benefits we can expect to receive upon cleaning up the mess?

According to Organizeyourlife.org, organizing your life enables you to:

  • Save time by not spending time looking for things.
  • Save money by not buying items you already have.
  • Instill confidence by knowing where things are in the home.
  • Reduce stress related to lost items or lost information.
  • Manage many activities and deadlines more efficiently.
  • Gain valuable storage space within your existing quarters.
  • Gain more energy and peace from your organized home while eliminating unnecessary tasks.
  • Have more time to do things you really want to do.
  • Have a more attractive and inviting home.

Working in a less cluttered, more organized space has also been shown to lead to other positive behaviors. In a paper published in Psychological Science (2013), summed up nicely in this blog, Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues set out to test how organized versus disorganized environments alter our thinking and behavior. They ran a simple test. Volunteers were paid to fill out a series of questionnaires in either an orderly workspace or a disorderly one; the former space was neat and tidy, the latter strewn with papers. While in the workspace, the volunteers were asked if they wished to donate items to a specified charity. Sure enough, people in the clean environment were more generous in their donations. People in the clean and tidy room were also more likely to opt for an apple over a candy bar when given as a parting gift for their study participation.

Some of us might have a messy house, office/cubicle, and car. Is there one place that’s more important to tidy up than others?

The spaces we work in or (try to) relax in are the most important areas to consider. Although it isn’t helpful to have a messy car (and it may cost you added time to find things), you are generally not trying either to be productive or to find bliss in your vehicle. A mess in the backseat of your car or in your trunk isn’t in your vision field, so it generally won’t keep you from relaxing or concentrating on the job of driving. On the other hand, if the clutter has spilled into your visual field or things are moving around while you drive, please make this a top priority and be safe.

How can we find the time to clean out our space? Where do we start?

Any space can feel overwhelming when viewed in the broad sense. The trick is to start small, find success and continue to move toward a larger goal of personal freedom from the clutter. Your cube my feel overwhelming to tackle, so it is important to define a small project that will allow you to successfully start the project. Whether you are working on your home or your office, you can identify one small box, pile or drawer as a starting point. It is helpful to designate three categories for sorting: (1) recycle/reduce/reuse; (2) file (find the ideal place for it); and (3) pass along to someone who could use it.

According to B.J. Fogg from the Stanford Persuasion Technology Lab, there are three priorities to consider:

Priority #1: Do hard things that structure future action.
For Example:

  • Call the Salvation Army or Junk King and schedule a pick-up for a date in the future. This will set a deadline for determining things to be given away.
  • Schedule a cleaning day with a friend so there is a scheduled time for decluttering.
  • If your home is the issue, invite friends over for dinner or to stay. This will require some advanced cleaning/decluttering on your part.

Priority #2: Do hard things that reduce barriers to behaviors.
For Example:

  • Make a commitment to support a family shelter with your unused clothing or household items. This will make parting with the items much easier for you.
  • Put a recycling container in your work area — which will encourage you to use it.
  • Purchase new file folders and labels to make filing easier and help you create a new habit.

Priority #3: Do hard things that increase your skills for success.
For example:

  • Find success no matter how small. Start by clearing out a currently unused box, drawer or glove compartment and celebrate the cleanliness.
  • Every hour, get up from your desk and put one thing away (either before or after you refill your water glass and take a short walk), or spend 5 minutes at the end of each day organizing. You may find that 5 minutes happily leads to 10 or more as you feel successful.
  • Ask your family and friends for their support and ideas for increasing your skills.

Once we’ve tidied up our spaces, what are some tips for helping it stay less cluttered?

Many of us have heard the old saying, “Touch something just once.” This is an ideal way to keep an uncluttered space clean. According to the book, The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, 40% or more of our daily activities are based on habits. For example, when you get home and bring in the mail — what is your habit? Do you drop it on the counter with the rest of the mail for the month and then move on to something else? What if, instead, you started a new habit of simply taking a few minutes to sort your mail before moving on to the next activity? A good place to sort new mail is near a recycle bin. Unless you’ve been very diligent in removing yourself from mailing lists, much of your mail pile can go directly into the recycling bin, substantially reducing the pile. Mail can generally be sorted into:

1. Recycle: junk mail you don’t need
2. To-do pile: event invitations or bills (if you still use manual payment methods)
3. To-review pile: magazines, periodicals, personal letters

If we want more advice on the topic, what resources can you recommend?

Clutterers Anonymous; and this article about their 12-step recovery program.
Real Simple
Organized Home
Good Housekeeping
Family Circle


Does clutter raise cortisol? ›

Clutter can increase cortisol, the “stress hormone.” A study by UCLA found a link between a high density of household objects and elevated cortisol.

Why is it important to be clutter-free? ›

According to a recent study clutter problems led to less life satisfaction, especially among older adults. Helps you lose weight. Constantly being in cluttered room, office or car can be stressful. All the undone cleaning tasks in the back of your of mind cause stress, which is linked to obesity.

How does clutter impact the brain? ›

Clutter can affect our anxiety levels, sleep, and ability to focus. It can also make us less productive, triggering coping and avoidance strategies that make us more likely to snack on junk and watch TV shows (including ones about other people decluttering their lives).

Does a clean room help you study? ›

The study concluded that a messy study space can "undermine people's persistence in completing tasks". Keeping a tidy, clutter-free study space can eliminate distractions and therefore improve your productivity and focus, which is essential for a successful study session.

What throws off cortisol levels? ›

Excessive and prolonged stress is the primary cause of cortisol imbalance, whether high or low. "High cortisol happens when the body perceives a stressor," says Dr.

What habits increase cortisol? ›

“Eating foods such as processed meats, high sugar foods, caffeine and alcohol, which provide little nutritional value, have been associated with more psychiatric symptoms and can increase cortisol levels—our primary hormone responsible for stress,” she said.

What is the root cause of clutter? ›

It can be a result of never having developed helpful habits and routines needed to stay organized in the first place. Perhaps you were raised in a very cluttered home. Because of this, you were never taught or modeled the habits needed to keep your things organized and uncluttered.

What kind of trauma causes clutter? ›

People who have suffered an emotional trauma or a brain injury often find housecleaning an insurmountable task. Attention deficit disorder, depression, chronic pain and grief can prevent people from getting organized or lead to a buildup of clutter.

What does clutter say about your personality? ›

Clutter in the living room might suggest blockages in your social life, as well as your relationship with yourself, while a cluttered bedroom might relate to issues surrounding your sexual self, fears of intimacy or gender roles.

Is clutter a symptom of depression? ›

Sometimes, living with anxiety, depression, or stress brings on clutter. If you're overwhelmed by sadness or other negative emotions, you might not have the energy to clean and organize. Or, you might use shopping or accumulating things to manage your feelings.

Are people with clean rooms happier? ›

'Many studies have found that having a clean and tidy house can help you to feel relaxed, accomplished, stress free and this could in turn help with any mental health conditions and allow you to feel better and happier.

Does a clean room help anxiety? ›

According to Dr. Brown, cleaning your space may help reduce your cortisol levels, turn down the volume on the visual noise, and help you focus on the things you need to, and that could potentially improve your mood.

Why decluttering is good for your mental health? ›

If you're looking for an easy way to reduce stress, decluttering your environment may be a good place to start. Getting rid of excess stuff can benefit your mental health by making you feel calmer, happier, and more in control. A tidier space can make for a more relaxed mind.

How do you not let clutter bother you? ›

Clutter Control: A Little at a Time

The key is to start small: Tackle one room or even one bookshelf at a time. Cleaning the clutter from drawers? "Don't dump the whole drawer," says Gilberg, "it's too overwhelming." Instead, take out items that can be thrown away, then things you can donate.

Why do people love clutter? ›

While some chalk it up to laziness, there's actually underlying psychology of clutter and disorganization that keeps people from tidying up. Potential reasons people hold onto clutter include: They feel overwhelmed: It's often a huge job to get rid of things, which can be both physically and mentally exhausting.

What vitamin gets rid of cortisol? ›

Vitamin B12, folic acid, and Vitamin C can also help support the metabolism of cortisol. Take deep breaths.

How do you feel when your cortisol is high? ›

As the body's primary stress hormone, cortisol surges when we perceive danger, and causes all the symptoms we associate with “fight or flight”—increased blood pressure and heart rate, muscle tension, and the digestive system slamming to a halt, resulting in nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

What lowers cortisol the most? ›

Here are some recommendations:
  • Get the right amount of sleep. Prioritizing your sleep may be an effective way to reduce cortisol levels. ...
  • Exercise, but not too much. ...
  • Learn to recognize stressful thinking. ...
  • Breathe. ...
  • Have fun and laugh. ...
  • Maintain healthy relationships. ...
  • Take care of a pet. ...
  • Be your best self.

What is a natural cortisol blocker? ›

L-theanine is an amino acid found in black tea, green tea, and some brands of dark chocolate. Research suggests it produces a state of calmness for up to three hours by reducing cortisol levels and blunting cortisol responses.

Do bananas increase cortisol? ›

Whether in a candy bar or steamy mug of hot chocolate, this favorite has been shown to lower cortisol levels. Bananas. Not only can bananas provide a great source of energy, but research showsTrusted Source they can also reduce inflammation and oxidative stress levels that are associated with increased cortisol.

What part of the day is cortisol highest? ›

In humans, the peak level secretion occurs in the morning (07:00–08:00 a.m.), which is considered the active phase, while its lowest secretion is around 02:00–04:00 a.m. at night [44,47]. Figure 2 demonstrates the circadian rhythm of cortisol.

What are the four causes of mental clutter? ›

What Is Mental Clutter? (And How To Clear It)
  • Information overload. I touched on what this is before, but in short, it's having too much information to process, which leads to feeling mentally drained.
  • Expectations. ...
  • Tasks we're procrastinating on. ...
  • Negative feelings.
May 18, 2020

Why is clutter a trauma response? ›

When one is exposed to trauma, people build guards around themselves and everything around them. If they start losing the stuff or declutter, they feel a void inside of them, so it's tougher for them than other people. Clutter acts as an unconscious barrier.

What causes someone to not clean their house? ›

If you don't clean your house, it might mean you are busy and have little time to clean and organize. It might be a sign that you have too much stuff. Or it might be the result of having young kids in the house who are usually not motivated to clean up after themselves.

What mental illness causes clutter? ›

A hoarding disorder is where someone acquires an excessive number of items and stores them in a chaotic manner, usually resulting in unmanageable amounts of clutter.

What are the 5 stages of hoarding? ›

The 5 Stages of Hoarding: What are They?
  • Clutter, but no concern. ...
  • Deteriorating hygiene, possible hoarder. ...
  • Extreme disorganization, likely disorder. ...
  • Excessive clutter & behavior, contact professionals. ...
  • Severe unsanitary conditions, hoarding diagnosis.
May 3, 2022

What mental illness causes hoarding? ›

Mental health conditions most often associated with hoarding disorder include: Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Which type of personality is likely to be messy and disorganized? ›

Pros and cons of hiring Type D personality

People with Type D personality traits are usually very organized; being around a messy environment or disorganization will bother them.

What is the spiritual meaning of clutter? ›

Spiritual clutter includes the thoughts and worries that waste our time and energy. We have thousands of thoughts a day and many of them are the same mental clutter that we've had for days, months, or years. Take the time to recognize the beliefs you have about yourself that are holding you back.

What is it called when you hate clutter? ›

Ataxophobia is an extreme, irrational fear of disorder or untidiness. People may feel intense distress in messy environments or even while thinking about disorder. This specific phobia is closely linked with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

What does a messy room mean psychologically? ›

A messy room can be a sign of depression or another mental health issue. Clutter affects your mood and can cause more anxiety or stress. Your child can get caught in a cycle of messiness that worsens their mental health and vice versa.

What is messy house syndrome? ›

Abstract. The messy house syndrome (Diogenes syndrome) is present when, owing to a disordering of the personality structure, a person is unable to keep order, for example, in the household or his finances. Such persons are also referred to as "messies".

What is the difference between clutter and hoarding? ›

Clutter: Possessions are disorganized and may accumulate around living areas. Collecting: Possessions are part of a larger set of items. Display does not impede active living areas in home. Hoarding: Possessions become unorganized piles preventing rooms from being used for their intended purpose.

Is cleaning a form of anxiety? ›

Researchers theorized that people gravitate toward repetitive behaviors (such as cleaning) during times of stress. Why? It's all about control. "We want to be able to do something when we get anxious, and what we really want is to be in control and take action," says Alicia H.

Does clutter cause anxiety? ›

Clutter can make us feel stressed, anxious and depressed. Research from the United States in 2009, for instance, found the levels of the stress hormone cortisol were higher in mothers whose home environment was cluttered.

How do I clear my mind of unwanted thoughts? ›

8 Ways to Give Your Mind a Deep Cleaning
  1. Be mindful.
  2. Start writing.
  3. Put on music.
  4. Get some sleep.
  5. Take a walk.
  6. Tidy up.
  7. Unfocus.
  8. Talk about it.
Nov 11, 2020

Why am I happier when my room is clean? ›

You will instantly feel less stressed and distracted, which in turn means that you can go into bed calmly, relaxed and get a much better sleep. On the other hand, those who have cluttered bedrooms take a long time to fall asleep and their sleep quality is poor enough that it can lead to depression and stress.

Why do people with anxiety have messy rooms? ›

There is also a link between anxiety and messy rooms. Studies have shown that clutter produces anxiety as well as making people feel depressed. One study of mothers living in cluttered homes found that they had higher-than-average levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Does cleaning lower cortisol? ›

According to Dr. Brown, cleaning your space may help reduce your cortisol levels, turn down the volume on the visual noise, and help you focus on the things you need to, and that could potentially improve your mood.

Why do I get stressed when the house is messy? ›

Why does mess lead to so much stress? Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren't necessary or important. Clutter distracts us by drawing our attention away from what our focus should be on.

What are the side effects of clutter? ›

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that clutter can negatively impact mental well-being, particularly among women. Clutter can also induce a physiological response, including increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

Why does a cluttered home cause stress? ›

The science behind how clutter causes you stress

A study conducted by Princeton University Neuroscience researchers found that a cluttered home environment impedes your ability to focus. When we have a hard time focussing, our mental faculties get worn down and frustration ensues, causing stress.

Does drinking a lot of water reduce cortisol? ›

“Cortisol is one of those stress hormones. Staying in a good hydrated status can keep your stress levels down.

What natural remedies reduce cortisol? ›

  1. Dark chocolate. Dark chocolate contains a high amount of flavonoids, which have been shown to buffer stress reactivity in the adrenal glands, resulting in lower cortisol release.
  2. Whole grains. ...
  3. Legumes and lentils. ...
  4. Whole fruits and vegetables. ...
  5. Green tea. ...
  6. Probiotics and prebiotics. ...
  7. Healthy fats. ...
  8. Water.

What does it mean if your house is always messy? ›

Is a messy house a sign of mental illness, you might ask. Psychology says that messiness can indeed be a sign that a person is having trouble. Just like someone who is suffering from OCD and has to control everything, being a messy person might show that they are dealing with depression or some other mental illness.

What is clutter a symptom of? ›

While some chalk it up to laziness, there's actually underlying psychology of clutter and disorganization that keeps people from tidying up. Potential reasons people hold onto clutter include: They feel overwhelmed: It's often a huge job to get rid of things, which can be both physically and mentally exhausting.

Why can't I relax when my house is messy? ›

Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren't necessary or important. Clutter distracts us by drawing our attention away from what our focus should be on. Clutter makes it more difficult to relax, both physically and mentally.

How do you know if your house is too cluttered? ›

You can't find things easily: The most obvious sign that you need to declutter a space is if you struggle to easily find what you're looking for. Clutter can make it hard to find even everyday essentials like your keys, phone, or wallet because everything blends in together into one jumbled mess.

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