Messy house, messy brain? How spring cleaning can boost your mental health

Mental Health

by Cole Arnold, CHES

Mar 7, 2022

We’ve all been there. The dust has been building up for months, your desk is cluttered with random pieces of paper that were relevant to you once, and your favorite comfy chair has become a convenient place of storage. We may have that moment where we look at our clutter and think to ourselves, “what has become of my life.”

The time for spring cleaning has arrived. (If it’s not spring when you’re reading this, it’s still time.)

There are some clear general health benefits to decluttering, including less allergies, less time wasted looking for things and decreased fall risk. In case you need some extra motivation to get up and cleaning, here is a question to think on: how does this clutter affect your mental health?

Let’s break down five areas of mental health that can be affected by our innocent clutter: stress, focus, sleep, happiness, and socializing.

Relieve stress

We have so many areas of our lives that can affect our stress levels—don’t add your clutter to this list! Research indicates that those who viewed their living space as cluttered experienced increased cortisol (aka “the stress hormone”) levels throughout their day.

Contrarily, those who viewed their space as uncluttered tended to experience a drop in cortisol during the day. When discussing this research with The New York Times, Dr. Darby Saxbe stated, “Clutter is in the eye of the beholder. The people who talked about it were the ones who had the cortisol response.”

If you see some clutter in your space, that means you’re likely more stressed because of it. A bit of mess in our space is likely not the only reason you may feel stressed, but it can definitely play a part.

Enhance your focus

Some people are naturally able to focus better than others, but clutter sure doesn’t help. Our brain only has so much processing power to spend, so it often looks for shortcuts to help it function at the top of its game.

In this case, our brain loves to group things together to make them easier to process. Research indicates that we are able to control our attention much easier when we group objects in our environment together in an organized manner, rather than randomly.

Struggling to focus is a key component of poor time management, low productivity, prioritization problems and more. Keep that workspace clear and your productivity high by cleaning that clutter!

Improve sleep quality

Sleep affects nearly everything in your life. Not getting enough sleep can increase your risk of diabetes, depression, motor vehicle crashes and many more health outcomes you probably want to avoid.

Unfortunately, clutter can impact our ability to get the most out of our sleep. Remember the cortisol levels we talked about in the stress section? Turns out they are a huge player in our sleep cycles, or our circadian rhythm. Our cortisol level is at its lowest when we are ready to enter a deep sleep (generally around midnight) and is at its highest when we are ready to wake up (around 9 AM).

Anything that disrupts our cortisol levels can also disrupt our sleep patterns—clutter is no exception.

Boost your happiness

We all want to be happy, but it’s easier said than done. There is no way to prove that cleaning your living room is the single most effective solution to boosting your happiness. However, research does find that those struggling with clutter report lower scores of life satisfaction.

Another thing to keep in mind is the role that the all-important hormone cortisol plays in our happiness. Studies have shown an association between high levels of depression and higher cortisol levels. Depression is often a result of serious or prolonged stress response. Clutter alone likely won’t make you depressed, but that little bit of extra stress sure isn’t making you happier.

Improve your social life

Believe it or not, interacting with people has a huge impact on your mental health. People who spend a lot of time alone have increased risk of depression and a lower quality of life. Having a cluttered environment doesn’t mean that you never interact with people, of course, but it can lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment, which can lead to social isolation.

This is most clearly seen in instances of hoarding disorder, but I know I’m definitely not eager to invite anyone over with an overflowing entryway closet and shelves donned with layer upon layer of dust and dust mites.

Ready, set, get cleaning! It won’t take as long as you think, and your mental health will thank you.

About the Author

Cole Arnold, CHES, is a certified health education specialist and wellness advisor for Baylor Scott & White Health.

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