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Cutting Through Clutter
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— January 6, 2020

Cutting Through Clutter

By Linda Melone
  • Reducing the amount of stuff in your life can also help reduce your stress levels.

Kristen, 51, spent much of her childhood feeling obligated to keep and care for things that she loved or that held special memories.

“That accumulation never felt quite right,” says Kristen, who prefers not to use her last name. “It felt like a lot of weight to carry through life.”

Formerly a crisis counselor in Seattle and now a traveler who’s slowly making her way around the world (and blogging about it at, Kristen decluttered her entire life before embarking on her journey—and approached this enormous task using a step-by-step plan.

“I began by eliminating junk mail,” she says. She then methodically donated, sold and gifted items (much to the delight of recipients).

“I got rid of anything I didn’t absolutely love, including older home decor and clothing I no longer wore,” Kristen recalls. “Unexpectedly, the more I cleared out, the more I wanted to clear out.”

Getting rid of items in storage units was more of a challenge. It wasn’t until Kristen calculated she’d spent $20,000 for two units over 15 years that she found the motivation to rid herself of their contents, too. After renting a mobile shredder truck and other necessary equipment, she began the process.

Lastly, Kristen also let go of her car and sold her home.

She says she felt only “total relief” once she banished clutter from her life.

“I feel more relaxed about it all,” Kristen notes. “Each time I used to think about all of the items I had all around me but didn’t really want, and the items I had in storage that I didn’t really know what to do with, I felt a heavy weight on my shoulders and a sick feeling in my belly.

“After I was finally free of it all, I literally jumped up and down with happiness.” 

Mess Creates Stress

There’s no question that clutter can create stress in a number of ways, says Steve Weissman, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in hoarding.

Clutter “often represents a project that needs to be completed, one that stays in our inbox nagging at us but never gets done,” says Weissman, who is based in New York City. “This type of clutter impacts other goals because we feel we can’t work on a more important project; we feel a need to get rid of the clutter first.

“In the end, neither gets done and we feel crummy about it.”

Stress may also result from clutter in instances where we lose something like keys, especially when we’re already in a rush to leave the house.

The stress of being late, plus the angst of rifling through a mess to find the keys—on top of the negative self-talk over allowing the clutter to accumulate—makes it all worse, says Weissman, who’s worked with varying degrees of clutter from messy attics to people who live in homes featured on hoarding shows seen on TV.

“Clutter doesn’t just stress us out, it can make us not like ourselves very much,” he adds.

All of this negativity can affect one’s well-being, especially among women. According to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, women who live in a cluttered home with at least one school-aged child had higher levels of cortisol, a key stress hormone, than those who did not see their homes as being cluttered.

“We might avoid whole rooms because the clutter reminds us of something we don’t like about ourselves,” Weissman says. “When we go to someone else’s house and find it to be immaculate, we can wonder what is this personal failing of ours that has us living like we do.”

Weissman notes that the reverse may also be the case, saying, “Being stressed can also be the cause of the clutter.”

Nights of lounging on the couch can lead to new projects, unopened mail and dirty clothes and dishes piling up. This can lead to a vicious cycle of stress and clutter that can make a person feel not only stressed, but depressed and ready to give up.

For many people, external clutter and mess often reflects internal disorganization and a sense of being overwhelmed, says Sharon Saline, PsyD, an ADHD expert based in Northampton, Massachusetts.

“It can be extremely helpful to clear up what’s happening on the outside as a way to foster a sense of spaciousness and calm internally,” Saline explains. “When people feel overwhelmed by mess, it’s hard to work on reducing it.”



Heart Health Consequences

Over time, wading through mountains of junk can lead to serious stress-related maladies.

“Our home environment is where we go to decompress,” explains Victoria Shin, MD, a cardiologist with Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California. “When that environment is cluttered and disorganized, it becomes a constant source of stress from which there is no escape. Clutter bombards us with excessive stimuli, making it more difficult to relax.”

In addition, being surrounded by a mess serves as a constant reminder of work to be done. This can trigger feelings of guilt over these incomplete projects, Shin says.

She adds that chronically elevated stress hormone levels have been linked with the development of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity—all of which, in turn, create a higher risk of heart disease.

“This chain of events is particularly problematic for people who have underlying cardiovascular disease,” Shin notes. “It can even trigger a heart attack, stroke or arrhythmia,” a disruption of one’s heartbeat.

When Clutter Becomes Hoarding

At its extreme, clutter can lead to a hoarding disorder, when someone becomes unable to function around the mess.

Clutter becomes hoarding when it starts to impact your living space, says Weissman. “For example, if people can’t sit on your couch because you’re using it to hold stuff or your garage can’t be used for your car anymore—any time you can’t use something the way it was meant to be used or the way you’d like to use it—that’s hoarding.”

Hoarding was only recognized as a distinct mental illness in 2013. It’s sometimes linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD or dementia, but not always.

Hoarding can begin with a life change, such as downsizing from a larger home into less square footage. This can result in an excessive amount of furniture without adequate space for it. “Or parents die and they had all this furniture, so the person moves it all into their own house,” says Weissman.

Other times, becoming a hoarder is the result of a very long, cumulative process of compulsive collecting or plans to fix things. While hoarding can occur at any age, it’s most prevalent among people 65 and older, according to a 2017 study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Clearing It All Away

The decluttering process can be an emotional one, depending on the extent of the clutter.

But it’s important to note your home should be an expression of yourself and vice versa, says Kelli Wright, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Houston. “Ask yourself, ‘Is the person I want to be cramped and cluttered—inside and out?’”

Wright suggests making decluttering a positive experience by putting on music and tossing out anything that doesn’t enrich your life.

“I often tell my clients that it’s best to align your life around your core values,” says Wright. “Define what it is you live for and establish your goals. Do you need all the clutter around your house in order to make those dreams a reality?”

Start small and set a schedule for yourself, suggests Saline. “Begin with easy tasks such as throwing away outdated papers, magazines and papers you’ve already read or don’t think you’ll get to.”

Schedule specific periods of time to tidy up, set a timer and stop when it goes off. Then reward yourself with something you love to do, something that nourishes you and brings you joy. Using time limits for cleaning and an external motivator helps reduce any unhappiness associated with tedious or uninteresting tasks and make them seem more manageable.

To take the necessary steps, a person must be willing to look at things differently, says Weissman. “It requires a willingness to let go and move towards the life you want.”

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