Your Clutter Stresses You Out: Science Says So

Can a clear home lead to a clear mind? It can certainly help, says science. 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 to document how these families use their time, what they do with the things they buy, how much use different parts of their homes receive, 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.
  • Even families that want to reduce clutter often are emotionally paralyzed when it comes to sorting and pitching objects. For sentimental, monetary, and, spoiler alert, scientific reasons, people have a hard time saying goodbye to their possessions.

Clutter’s impact on 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 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, resulting in decreased performance and increased stress.

“Messy homes and work spaces 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. “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.”

Science explains why you can’t clear clutter

Did you ever wonder why you just can’t bring yourself to donate those rows and rows of books you’ll know you’ll never read? Or why you can’t part with the panini press, popcorn popper and ice cream maker that are all hogging valuable pantry space, even though you haven’t used any of them for years? 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 and identified that, among the people classified as “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 clutter

Clearing out clutter can alleviate anxiety, increase productivity, allow creativity to flourish—generally speaking, it 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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