Published on December 18, 2019

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Design by Emily Henderson Design; Photographer by Sara Tramp

You haven’t made your bed in weeks, the kitchen counters are hardly within sight, and piles of mail are reaching new heights on your coffee table—a cluttered home can easily bring about a bad mood, and vice versa. It’s a chicken or the egg situation, but no matter which comes first, the relationship is clear—how your home looks can say a lot about where you are emotionally. 

In fact, it’s scientifically proven. Catherine Roster, a professor at the University of New Mexico and coauthor of a study on clutter and well-being, researched this connection and found that clutter was most often associated with feelings of being overwhelmed and anxious. “The most interesting thing that we found was that clutter has a negative impact on a person’s psychological sense of ‘home,’” she says. “Normally, people view ‘home’ as a refuge, a safe haven where they are free to express themselves and be themselves.” But when that place is piled high with junk, you can feel dissatisfied and even depressed. 

And when your home doesn’t make you feel good, gathering the motivation to improve it can be even harder. According to Joyce Marter, licensed psychotherapist and founder of Urban Balance, “Clutter can negatively impact a person’s mood and trigger feelings of inadequacy, shame, worthlessness, and low self-esteem. It can even negatively impact sleep or the ability to concentrate.” So what do you do when you find yourself stuck with a mess but no impulse to clean it up?

Clean for Self-Care

Well, you should clean anyway—and it will actually make you feel better. “Cleaning can be an active, mindfulness meditation in that it can reduce ‘mind chatter’ by focusing a person’s attention on the here and now,” says Marter. “The end result of cleaning can boost a person’s self-esteem with the positive feeling of a job well done, as well as the peaceful, relaxed, confident feelings that come with being in a clean, organized, and appealing space.” (One study found that an act as simple as washing dishes can boost mindfulness and positive emotions.)

Start Small

But that doesn’t mean you have to launch into a daylong cleaning marathon. “I like doing a quick tidy-up. When I say quick, I mean not spending more than about 10 minutes, and I also mean moving fast,” says Claire Tompkins, founder of The Clutter Coach. “That gets my adrenaline going and makes me feel energetic and inspired.” 

To make it even easier, she suggests activities that occupy the mind, like listening to a podcast or book on tape as you unload the dishwasher, or even chatting with a friend while hanging up clothes. Plus, she echoes what the queen of clearing clutter, Marie Kondo, would say: “Make sure everything you own has a home.” She suggests taking a mental snapshot of each space and where items belong, making sure to put everything back where it belongs after use.

Accept Your Mess—To a Point

If keeping a spick-and-span home just isn’t something that feels possible, being a little messy isn’t a problem—unless it starts affecting other aspects of your life. Tompkins explains that if you’re always looking for things and waste money buying duplicates, there’s no counter space to get work (household or otherwise) done, or your home is a space you’re ashamed to show others, it’s become a problem. “If being messy makes you feel bad about yourself, you should do something to change it,” she says.

Know When Extra Help Might Be Needed

While a sour mood might be remedied by the sense of accomplishment you get from doing the laundry, it’s not a cure-all. If you consistently notice the kitchen sink getting a little too full of dishes or the stack of mail growing by the day and continue to have a hard time tackling them, it’s worth taking a look inward. “Our environment is a direct reflection of our mental health,” says Marter. “Clutter may be a sign that you need to address and take care of your mental health by meeting with a therapist or counselor.”

See more stories on stress management:
Stressed Out? 5 Small Actionable Things You Can Do Right Now
Why Not Use Crystals to De-Stress Your Home?
What I Learned From Tracking My Stress Levels for a Month

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