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Your Clutter Stresses You Out: Science Says So

Interior of minimalist kitchen with subway tile backsplash
@JadeNinaSarkhel / Twenty20

Can a clear home lead to a clear mind? Science says it can certainly help.

Your crammed closet, piles of paperwork, and overflowing junk drawers are, literally, stressing you out, according to a study conducted by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families.

Researchers visited the homes of 32 middle-class, dual-income families in Los Angeles. The study documented how these families use their time, what they do with the things they buy, and what aspects of home life cause stress.

Among the findings, researchers uncovered that clutter has a significant effect on our mood and self-esteem.

The study found:

  • A link between high cortisol (stress hormone) levels in female homeowners and a high density of household objects. Men don’t seem as bothered by a mess, but their ambivalence resulted in tension with their more orderly wives. That added to the wives’ stress.
  • Women associate a neat home with a happy family. The more unorganized a living space is, the more stressed women feel.
  • Sorting and pitching objects can be emotionally paralyzing. For sentimental, monetary, and scientific reasons, people have a hard time saying goodbye to their possessions.

How clutter impacts the brain:

In addition to CELF’s findings, neuroscientists at Princeton University conducted a study that revealed clutter makes you distracted and unable to process information as well as you would in an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment. When researchers observed people’s ability to successfully perform in an organized versus disorganized environment, the results showed that the clutter competed for their attention. This resulted in decreased performance and increased stress.

“Messy homes and workspaces leave us feeling anxious, helpless, and overwhelmed. Yet, rarely is clutter recognized as a significant source of stress in our lives,” writes Sherrie Bourg Carter, a doctor of psychology, for PsychologyToday.com.

She adds: “Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important, and constantly signals to our brains that our work is never done.”

Why you can’t just clear the clutter:

Did you ever wonder why you just can’t bring yourself to donate those books you’ll know you’ll never read? Or why you can’t part with the panini press and ice cream maker that are all hogging valuable pantry space? (Let’s be honest, you haven’t used those in years.) Well, science has an answer.

Researchers at Yale discovered that letting go is painful. They recruited non-hoarders and hoarders and asked them to sort through items such as junk mail and old newspapers. While this was happening, researchers tracked their brain activity. They identified that in hoarders, two areas of the brain — the anterior cingulate cortex and insula — lit up in response to letting go of items they owned. The same area of the brain lights up when a person feels physical pain.

The finding: Your brain views the loss of one of your “valued” possessions as the same as something that causes you physical pain. And the more significant the item is or the more emotionally or financially committed you are, the more you’ll want to keep it around.

Keep calm and clear the clutter:

We know that you have ties to your things. Items have the power to hold memories and signify big life events. We aren’t telling you to get rid of everything that holds value — just prioritize it. Be honest with yourself about what is a must-have and find a place for it so it. That way, you can bring it out when you want it but keep it out of sight for when you don’t.

We promise (and science supports us!), clearing out the clutter can alleviate anxiety, increase productivity, and allow creativity to flourish. Organizing your space can change your life for the better. And while decluttering a home can seem daunting, it doesn’t have to be. Check out MYMOVE’s Room-By-Room Guide to clearing out clutter, and let the purge begin!

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