This shows a very messy room.
It’s important to remember you have some agency over what matters to you and how you want to prioritise your time. Credit: Neuroscience News

Why Household Mess Triggers Stress and Anxiety

Summary: The presence of clutter can often lead to feelings of stress and anxiety. The brain tends to favor order, reducing the competition for attention and mental load.

While clutter affects many, women may experience heightened stress levels due to societal expectations and roles.

Not all clutter is bad; occasional disorder can spark creativity, but understanding its impact can lead to better mental well-being.

Key Facts:

  1. A cluttered environment can lead to cognitive overload, as the brain struggles to prioritize attention amidst distractions.
  2. Studies suggest that women might be more affected by clutter-induced stress than men due to societal roles and expectations.
  3. While constant disorder is unproductive, perfectionism in cleanliness can also be harmful, linking to anxiety and poor mental health.

Source: The Conversation

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sight of clutter and mess in your home? Have you walked in the door only to feel overloaded by scattered papers, unwashed dishes and clothes in disarray? Maybe you’ve even had arguments because it bothers you more than it bothers you partner or housemates.

You’re not alone. Many people report a messy house can trigger feelings of stress and anxiety.

So why do clutter and chaos make some of us feel so overwhelmed? Here’s what the research says – and what you can do about it.

Cognitive overload

When we’re surrounded by distractions, our brains essentially become battlegrounds for attention. Everything competes for our focus.

But the brain, as it turns out, prefers order and “singletasking” over multitasking.

Order helps reduce the competition for our attention and reduces mental load. While some people might be better than others at ignoring distractions, distractable environments can overload our cognitive capabilities and memory.

Clutter, disorder and mess can affect more than just our cognitive resources. They’re also linked to our eatingproductivity, mental health, parenting decisions and even our willingness to donate money.

Are women more affected than men?

Research suggests the detrimental effects of mess and clutter may be more pronounced in women than in men.

One study of 60 dual-income couples found women living in cluttered and stressful homes had higher levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) and heightened depression symptoms.

These effects remained consistent even when factors like marital satisfaction and personality traits were taken into account. In contrast, the men in this study seemed largely unaffected by the state of their home environments.

The researchers theorised that women may feel a greater responsibility for maintaining the home. They also suggested the social aspect of the study (which involved giving home tours) may have induced more fear of judgement among women than men.

We will all live with clutter and disorganisation to some degree in our lives. Sometimes, however, significant clutter problems can be linked to underlying mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorderhoarding disordermajor depressive disorderattention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and anxiety disorders.

This raises a crucial question: which came first? For some, clutter is the source of anxiety and distress; for others, poor mental health is the source of disorganisation and clutter.

Not all mess is a problem

It’s important to remember clutter isn’t all bad, and we shouldn’t aim for perfection. Real homes don’t look like the ones in magazines.

In fact, disorganised spaces can result in increased creativity and elicit fresh insights.

Living in constant disorder isn’t productive, but striving for perfectionism in cleanliness can also be counterproductive. Perfectionism itself is associated with feeling overwhelmed, anxiety and poor mental health.

Mess makes me anxious so what can I do about it?

It’s important to remember you have some agency over what matters to you and how you want to prioritise your time.

One approach is to try to reduce the clutter. You might, for example, have a dedicated de-cluttering session every week. This may involve hiring a cleaner (if you can afford it) or playing some music or a podcast while tidying up for an hour with your other household members.

Establishing this routine can reduce clutter distractions, ease your overall mental load and alleviate worry that clutter will spiral out of control.

You can also try micro-tidying. If don’t have time for a complete cleanup, commit just five minutes to clearing one small space.

If the clutter is primarily caused by other household members, try to calmly discuss with them how this mess is affecting your mental health. See if your kids, your partner or housemates can negotiate some boundaries as a household over what level of mess is acceptable and how it will be handled if that threshold is exceeded.

It can also help to develop a self-compassionate mindset.

Mess doesn’t define whether you are a “good” or “bad” person and, at times, it may even stimulate your creativity. Remind yourself that you deserve success, meaningful relationships and happiness, whether or not your office, home or car is a mess.

Take comfort in research suggesting that while disorganised environments can make us susceptible to stress and poor decision-making, your mindset can buffer you against these vulnerabilities.

If clutter, perfectionism or anxiety has begun to seem unmanageable, talk with your GP about a referral to a psychologist. The right psychologist (and you may need to try a few before you find the right one) can help you cultivate a life driven by values that are important to you.

Clutter and mess are more than just visual nuisances. They can have a profound impact on mental wellbeing, productivity and our choices.

Understanding why clutter affects you can empower you to take control of your mindset, your living spaces and, in turn, your life.

About this stress and anxiety research news

Author: Erika Penney
Source: The Conversation
Contact: Erika Penney – The Conversation
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

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  1. The correlation between anxiety and a messy home is a topic that hits close to home for many of us. This article does a great job of shedding light on the link between our mental well-being and our living environment.
    It’s fascinating to see how our external surroundings can have such a profound impact on our internal state of mind. As someone who has experienced the stress of a cluttered living space, I can attest to the truth of these findings.

  2. Dirt, yes! Clutter, NO!
    My DH is the opposite and he doesn’t even SEEM to notice filth and dirt :-( (but then he is colour blind.

    1. Hi Evelyn,

      I actually ran across and interesting article yesterday that said men actually do notice the dirt, but it’s the women who feel more pressure when their homes are a little messy.

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