Learn more about the link between clutter and stress, anxiety, and depression.

Messiness in our physical space, and how it impacts the way we think and feel, is getting quite a bit of attention.

If you’ve ever looked around your cluttered home — or your messy desk — and felt anxious, you’re not alone. Science supports a link between feeling overwhelmed and having an overwhelming number of things in your environment.

Research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that clutter has a negative impact on overall well-being. It also increases stress, decreases productivity, and leads to unhealthy habits.

But science doesn’t tell us which came first — the clutter or the stress. Read on to learn more about clutter’s impact and what you can do about it.

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When Clutter Causes Stress

A cluttered environment can influence decisions you make about your health, including saying “no” to unhealthy foods. A disorganized kitchen might not inspire healthy meals. And, if your stationary bike serves as a clothes rack or you can’t find your sneakers, you’re less likely to exercise.

If mess is causing you stress, it’s time to take action. Look critically at your environment and take inventory. Consider the things you can control, such as:

  • Having too much stuff. A few hours, a trash bag, and a box for donations can help get your surroundings under control and clear your mind.
  • Lacking a place for things. Simple changes, like adding shelves or cleaning out an overflowing closet, can make it easier to put things away and keep your space neat. It can make a big difference in managing clutter.

When Stress Causes Clutter

Sometimes, living with anxiety, depression, or stress brings on clutter. If you’re overwhelmed by sadness or other negative emotions, you might not have the energy to clean and organize. Or, you might use shopping or accumulating things to manage your feelings.

If the way you feel makes it challenging to keep your environment clean, you should:

  • Talk to your doctor. Have an evaluation for depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. Treatment, whether therapy alone or combined with medicine, can improve how you feel and function.
  • Enlist help. Age-related and mobility issues can make cleaning up a challenge. Hire help or ask a friend or family member to assist with getting clutter under control.

When Clutter Goes Too Far

For some people, clutter goes far beyond a messy or crowded space. People with hoarding disorder obsessively save things. They can’t throw anything away, even as their space grows more cluttered. They tend to accumulate items regardless of perceived value. Normal living spaces — tables and furniture like beds and couches — become unusable because of the accumulating clutter. This can lead to a dangerous physical environment and cause problems in relationships and daily functioning.

If you suspect that your own clutter, or a loved one’s, might be a sign of hoarding, help is available.

For more information, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.

Dr. Joseph Ferrari, Delaying Disposing: Examining the Relationship between Procrastination and Clutter across Generations, Current Psychology, June 2018. Link

ABC News, How Clutter Affects Your Health, 2019 Link

Marie Kondo. The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. Link

Gretchen Rubin. Outer Order, Inner Calm. Link

Dr. Catherine Roster, The Dark Side of Home: Assessing Possession 'Clutter' on Subjective Well-being, Journal of Environmental Psychology, June 2016. Link

Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 5 Reasons to Clear the Clutter Out of Your Life, Psychology Today blog. Link

Institute for Challenging Disorganization, Fact Sheet: Factors Associated With Disorganization. Link

NIH News in Health, The Problem That Piles Up: When Hoarding Is a Disorder. Link

American Psychiatric Association, What Is Hoarding Disorder? Link

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.