There is a profound connection between the environment we call home and our mental health. If you're struggling with mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression, burnout, decision fatigue, or feeling overwhelmed by chronic stress, you may benefit from learning how these symptoms can be tied back to your physical surroundings. In this article, we'll explore what is behind the environmental impact as well as provide you with practical, therapist-approved tips to transform your living space in ways that are supportive of your mental health.
The Vicious Cycle of Clutter
In the words of Dr. Dawn Potter from the Cleveland Clinic podcast, "The state of your living space is often a reflection of your mental state." If clutter and disorganization in our homes can both cause and also be a reflection of chaos and unease in our minds, then there is a clear connection between our internal and external worlds. In fact, a home in disarray may be downright dysfunctional, preventing you from doing daily tasks as well as the self-care needed to bring peace to your psychological space.
The cycle of clutter works like this: the chaos we see feeds negative emotions, and in turn, those emotions make it difficult to summon the energy and motivation needed to tidy up.
This cycle produces frequent spikes of cortisol and adrenaline throughout the day, every time you feel the stress of struggling to find your keys, realize you are out of clean clothes to wear to work, or can't locate the items needed to help your kids complete their school project that is due tomorrow. At this point, negative self-talk may intensify as thoughts like "I'm lazy," "I'm not capable of keeping up," or "My kids/partner deserve better" float around your head. The spiral gets deeper as the mess piles up and symptoms of anxiety and shame intensify.
By addressing the mess and disarray in your living space, you can effectively disrupt this cycle and take a significant step towards breaking free from the grip of negative self-talk and other symptoms associated with depression.
What is Considered a "Messy" Home?
The amount of clutter tolerated by each of us before it starts to erode our mental health can vary widely from person to person. For the purposes of this article, we are considering the definition of clean, messy, and dirty to be based on physical and mental health effects produced by the environment on those who live in it.
If a house is clean and organized, those who live there feel calm and at peace. All of their belongings have a consistent place in which the item is stored that is both accessible and efficient. When an environment is simply messy or becomes cluttered, the persons living in the space may feel stressed and overwhelmed because daily tasks start to become more difficult. There may be toys and clothing on the floor that you trip over, your keys are always hard to find, and piles of mail and paperwork are stacked in various areas of the home making it harder to find that one important document when you need it. Mess makes going through your day harder, taking up valuable mental and emotional energy that, when depleted, brings about feelings of burnout and depression.
A home can be messy without being dirty. If a home is dirty, it is negatively affecting both physical and mental health. In these situations, the messiness has been ignored and allowed to compound for some time, often because the resident has been trapped in the cycle of clutter with no way out. Characteristics of a dirty home environment include crumbs lying around to the point where it’s attracting unwanted pests, letting food go bad to the point of molding, or developing skin rashes caused by letting sheets go unwashed for too long resulting in dust mites or bed bugs. This level of environmental disarray is often an external sign of serious mental health struggles, such as major depressive disorder which can produce such intense feelings of fatigue and low motivation that addressing clutter before it escalates to this level feels impossible.
In extreme cases, people live in cluttered, chaotic living spaces due to a perceived need to save items and who experience significant distress with discarding unneeded items and may qualify for hoarding or another OCD-type diagnosis. This article does not give information intended to address these situations but is instead targeted at the many individuals who live in a continuously unkept, moderately messy environment that is both a consequence and a symptom of moderate levels of depression, anxiety, chronic stress, and/or burnout.
Break the Cycle: Clean Up & Establish a Routine
Taking the action required to maintain a clean, organized space can have several mental health benefits including a reduction in symptoms associated with depression, chronic stress, burnout, and decision fatigue. Following a clean-up routine produces a sense of control that alleviates anxiety and produces healthy physical movement needed to release endorphins that make emotion regulation easier. When this is done in tandem with others in the household, tidying up also helps cultivate a culture of connection in the home, which is noted by NPR as one of the steps needed to address America's loneliness epidemic.
Breaking the cycle of clutter and messiness can be difficult. Here are a few tips to make it easier:
Ask for help. As Brene Brown, world-renowned shame researcher states "shame cannot survive openness, compassion, and self-soothing. . . if you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive.” So, find someone in your life who you know will offer you the empathy, validation, and support needed to break the cycle by helping you clean up your physical space.
Hire a professional. If you do not feel that you have anyone in your life that you feel is empathetic enough to validate and support you personally, hire a professional! Consider working with a personal organizer or cleaning crew to address physical spaces and contact a therapist who can help you work through the psychological blocks and low motivation standing in the way of tidying up yourself. Having both ongoing therapy and professional cleaning support can be a great investment in your physical and mental health.
Follow a step-by-step guide when you first start decluttering your home, such as this one or this one. As you follow the guide, remember to manage stress and limit decision fatigue by moving at a pace that feels empowering rather than overwhelming.
Clean up in a way that is supportive of your mental health:
Ask for support as you need it, both from personal and professional connections.
Utilize a mindfulness practice to check in with yourself, physically and emotionally, and honor what is coming up for you in this process.
Remember your reason - consider writing down a list of reasons why it is important to declutter and establish a routine that creates a healthier environment, then keep that list close by while cleaning.
Apply your decluttering plan to one room or area at a time to prevent overwhelm and decision fatigue. You cannot declutter, clean, and organize your entire house in just one day. Even if you complete one drawer per day, that is great progress!
Consume media that is inspiring and educational such as The Home Edit podcast, books, or Netflix series. Note: this is not an invitation for comparison. Professional organizers are pros for a reason - this is what they do all day, every day. Any improvement you make in your space is positive, even if it isn't perfect or as Insta-worthy as @thehomeedit
Bring function to each room - Allow time to thoughtfully reflect on why each room or area gets cluttered and why it is or is not functioning in the way you need it to. Consider: Would it be helpful to rearrange the room for better flow? Would it help to get a closet organization system, storage baskets, or a room divider?
Personalize your space to be beautiful and a representation of what you like - Designing and maintaining our personal spaces is a mode of self-empowerment. Do you like bright colors? Then get a colorful, boho-designed bedspread! Do you like a spa-like vibe? Then get a handmade glass essential oil diffuser and a dimmable touch control lamp with USB plugins and holders to keep your phone and other items for your nightstand. The act of choosing items that you find functional and enjoyable makes your home environment supportive of your mental health.
Maintain Your Mental Health Haven
Ok, you've done it! Your home environment is cleaned up and organized, you've exhaled that sigh of relief and feel more relaxed in your space. Now, how do we make sure the house isn't a disaster by tomorrow? Try the following to maintain your clean and organized home:
Make clean-up part of your daily routine by "pairing." A whole house clean-up is very time and energy-consuming. Keeping your house clean and organized doesn't have to be. The key is to focus on building sustainable cleaning habits into your current daily routine by pairing an activity you like and therefore already do consistently with one that you don't enjoy and isn't already a habit. For example, while you binge-watch your favorite Netflix show, fold the laundry. Excited to listen to the latest episode of a podcast you love? Pop in headphones and listen while doing the dishes each evening.
Follow the rule "Don't set it down unless it's in the right place." Remember the children's book "The House That Ran Away," in which all the little household items from spoons and socks, to toothbrushes and tea cups, jump up and run away because they were not cared for and put back in their proper homes after being used. It's a cute way to teach children to take care of their belongings, but the message goes beyond that. Our things last longer and can serve us better when we care for those items by making a commitment to not set them down unless we are putting them back in their proper place. This act doubles as a mode of self-care by creating an environment supportive of your mental health (and your wallet, since you'll need to replace items less often!)
Invest in products that make your life easier by adding function, efficiency, and organization to your space. During your initial cleanup, what did you notice about why clutter accumulated where it did? Is it because your things don't have a home? You can't follow the "don't set it down unless it's in the right place" rule if each item doesn't in fact
have a proper place to live. Organizing items like baskets, labeled storage bins, drawer dividers, shelf dividers, and closet or shoe organizers can go a long way in helping you keep an orderly environment where everything has a spot where it belongs.
Connect with others who provide inspiration, accountability, and support. A partner, family member, friend, or even therapist can provide support and accountability that will help you achieve a tidy home environment. There is no reason to go at this alone, and in many cases, it may be impossible to. If you live in a home with other people, everyone in the home ideally needs to see the benefits and be on board with maintaining a more clean, organized space. If this is not the case, family therapy can be a great space for you and key family members to come together and gain the support of a therapist through the process of changing behaviors together as a team.
When to Reach Out for Help
Creating an environment that is supportive of your mental health is no easy task. It takes a long-term plan and ongoing, intentional maintenance--even when you don't have the energy or motivation to do so. If you're trying and struggling to improve your environment, these are indicators that you should consider working with a therapist:
Having a messy home is a new phenomenon and you have recently lost the motivation or energy needed to address the issue
You've recently lost a loved one and are struggling to part with or incorporate their belongings into your life
Living with the mess is something that bothers you but you can't seem to make the changes needed to reduce the clutter
You struggle to get rid of everyday items that others seem to part with easily
A good amount of time is spent noticing and starting to clean up, but you often get distracted before you can finish the project you started
Working with a therapist to help you through the stages of behavior change needed to create new habits as well as work through other contributing factors adding to depression and anxiety, can be key to achieving this goal.
If you are struggling with symptoms of depression and anxiety, or are unsure how to manage and improve your mental health, schedule a free consult call with a therapist at Her Time Therapy, LLC. We are an integrative group counseling practice comprised of licensed therapists in Colorado who specialize in providing convenient and empowering online therapy for women. You can feel confident working with a Her Time therapist because we are women who get it - we recognize that women like you experience a unique set of biological, environmental, economic, and social challenges that have a real impact on your mental health and are deserving of specialized support.
About the Author
Meagan Clark, MA LPC NCC BC-TMH is a Licensed Professional Counselor and the Founder and Clinical Director of Her Time Therapy, LLC, a group therapy practice specializing in teletherapy for women. She received her Master of Arts degree in School and Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Adams State University and is a Board Certified Telemental Health Provider and Nationally Certified Counselor. As a women's therapist, Meagan specializes in working with female-identifying teens and adults who suffer from trauma, relationship issues, anxiety, depression, and grief. She is also a Certified Holistic Cancer coach and specializes in supporting cancer patients and caregivers. Meagan believes strongly in the empowering nature of integrative and feminist therapy to give women the knowledge and tools they need to navigate gender-based oppression, increase resiliency, and empower themselves to create a life they love.
*Disclaimer: This blog does not provide medical advice and the information contained herein is for informational purposes only. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a licensed health provider before undertaking a new treatment or health care regimen.
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