How clutter is killing your mental health

My dear friend came to stay with me for a few days last month and offered me the sweetest gift. It came in the form of a text message the night before her arrival that said, “If your house is clean when I show up tomorrow, I’m going to be so mad at you.”

I decided at that point to only scrape the gum off the kitchen chairs and wipe the urine off the toilet seats (boys!, I feel compelled to qualify here), but to leave the wreck of the rest of my chaotic home just as it was.

I was grateful to feel assured I could welcome her to my mess without any fear of judgment. I’ve tried to do the same for other friends over the years by reminding them that there is nothing they need to do to welcome me over. I’ll be irritated, I tell them, if you go out of your way. It will just make me feel like I have to do the same, and that’s not good for anybody.

I think it’s great for us to grant permission to ourselves and each other to not have to perform or stress. Our homes aren’t a reflection of the goodness inside of us, after all. But since I’ve given up on cleaning up for other people, it’s allowed me to see more clearly something else: living in chaos makes me feel chaotic.

We don’t need to feel badly about having messy, clutter-filled homes, but what if the clutter is making us feel crazy? 

Several weeks ago, Marie Kondo’s comments about accepting “that I cannot tidy every day” after having her third child struck a chord with women everywhere. It was part validation and part vindication as the world’s most famous tidier came to acknowledge that kids make things impossible. It’s funny what makes breaking news.

In reality, there is a generation of women who needed to hear this from Kondo, having been brought up expecting to be able to “do it all” and facing the disheartening reality that this was all, in fact, bullshit.

But it made me wonder too how Kondo is experiencing this new reality. Because what could feel like freedom could also feel like a loss of power. This might be particularly so for someone for whom having their physical space feel predictable and orderly is important.

This essay isn’t about the importance of tidy homes –  at least not exactly – and it’s certainly not about giving a list of organization tips. It’s about acknowledging that there are a lot of us who feel overtaken by the disorder of life, and that gets reflected and amplified by the state of our homes.

Accounts like @domesticblisters and books like How to Keep House While Drowning exist because we know that when our mental health suffers, our motivation for and ability to manage a household declines sharply. Hoarding might be the most extreme example of what can happen when our brains are betraying us, but most of us who have experienced episodes of grief, paralyzing anxiety, or significant depression have been known to let our surroundings start to overtake us.

These experiences are so relatable that social media culture has dubbed “doom piles” to describe the mounds of belongings that have accumulated because the mental energy or resources wasn’t available to do something else with them. “DOOM” in this case stands for “Didn’t organize, only moved.” Similarly, social media users are starting to share their “depression rooms,” spaces that have become unmanageable as a result of the focus and energy sucked out of us by mental illness.

When we start to look at the mess a bit more closely, we can see the hardships that they might be revealing. Whether it’s a diagnosable mental illness, an dysfunction of executive function, or a period of extreme stress or overwhelm, our environment’s clutter can often tell us a lot about what’s going on inside.

But is it possible, as I have so often contended to my cohabitants, that the clutter is not just a reflection of the mental distress, but is a cause of it? If my own irritability was a rigorous enough trial, I’d say absolutely. I was curious to know, though, what the research had to say.

In one interestingly designed study, researchers asked couples in dual-earner households to give a video tour of their home and describe it to the viewer. What they learned through linguistic analysis was that women, specifically, in messier households had more depressed moods and worse cortisol levels.

Another much larger scale project actually combined 112 studies to understand what role household chaos and disorganization had on families and the individuals in them. While household chaos was evaluated based on more than just clutter and physical mess, it was part of the picture of a family’s struggle. And more chaotic households negatively impacted just about everything you can imagine – the quality of interactions, focus, mood, sleep, and physical health, among others.

So what is it about household clutter that has such profound negative effects on us? Part of the challenge with clutter is that it’s presence means that our brains are having to work harder to process more visual stimulation. I know that when I walk through my own kitchen and see items stacked on counters, I’m not just walking by, but I’m also mentally noting where each thing on that counter needs to go or what I need to do to complete the task it requires. So the papers that need mailed, the paint can that needs put away, the laundry I need to fold, the camp registration I need to complete, the grocery list I need to make, the lunches I need to pack.

The piles aren’t just piles, they’re to-do lists. It’s like my mental load has just vomited up all over the house.

Not everyone is so affected, it should be noted. Some of us are able to walk by and not mentally spiral. This can seem gendered, and the little bit of evidence we have suggests that it may in fact be. Women have been shown to experience a bigger impact of clutter on their stress, as noted earlier. And that may in fact  be another way in which clutter nags at us. For some of us, seeing the mess amplifies the discrepancy in their home responsibilities. It fuels more frustration and resentment. And to some degree that’s fair; getting married to a man (even without having children) increases a woman’s weekly household work by seven hours.

Then there’s the fact that more mess means more disorganization and more long-term effort and time to find lost stuff. As any mom who has been yelling at her kids to put the shoes on that they can’t find knows all too well, there are no margins built into life for dealing with the consequences of doom piles that moved locations.

If you’re among those of us who are realizing that clutter is killing your mental health, take heart in knowing that you’re not frazzled for no reason. It doesn’t make you high maintenance or a nag. It’s actually your brain telling you that it needs some clearing to function better.

Next time a friend comes to visit, I might just go ahead and tidy up. Not for her, but for me.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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