Is Decluttering the Secret to Less Stress and Better Mental Health?

Kristen Domonell Fact Checked
Decluttering for mental health
© Lumina / Stocksy United

In a time when people are more stressed out than ever, it makes sense that minimalism, the tiny house movement, #vanlife and the KonMari method are taking over our social media feeds and podcast libraries. All these lifestyles promote some version of: get rid of stuff you don’t really need and have a clutter-free home so you can live a simpler, more joyful life.

But can decluttering really make you feel more content?

Yes, according to Brenna Renn, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and acting assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington.

“I do think that we are hardwired as humans to look for patterns in our environment and to find comfort in predictable patterns and occurrences,” Renn says. “That may be the underpinning of where this interest in decluttering is coming from. If we can make our home environments these predictable environments, it might support our mental health.”

That said, here’s what you should know before deciding to spend the weekend cleaning out your closets.

Decluttering may help you focus

At work, most of us are trying to do five things at once. And while multitasking is often pegged as a must-have skill, it’s not something any of us are actually any good at.

“Really, what our brains are doing when we think we’re multitasking is rapidly shifting attention from one task or subject to another,” says Renn. “Some people do that better than others, but no one is truly multitasking.”

So, how does clutter fit in? Add a messy cubicle or a home office that’s 10 feet from a pile of dishes and laundry that needs folding and it’s no wonder you’re having trouble getting anything done.

“I think about clutter as visual static,” says Renn. “When you’re in between radio stations, the static can be very distracting.”

Less clutter could help you relax

It’s not just work that can suffer from a messy environment: Clutter at home can keep you from fully relaxing or enjoying your personal time.

“If it’s the case where you want to lie down and read or watch a movie or listen to music but your living room is cluttered, it’s going to be hard to immerse yourself in that activity. You’ll be pulled to that stack of clutter or the boxes you haven’t unpacked,” says Renn.

It’s worth pointing out that the amount of clutter that can be distracting varies from person to person. For some, a stack of mail on the counter doesn’t really count as a mess, whereas others can feel stressed out when a single item on the bookshelf is out of place.

Less clutter might equate to less stress and anxiety

If you have trouble dealing with stress or you have anxiety, having a tidy home could be helpful, since constantly being around a mess can serve as a source of chronic stress, says Renn.

“People with anxiety are already hypervigilant to any sort of stress response. Their stress alarm is already dialed up. Anything like clutter or anything disruptive in their environment could be one more thing that tips the scales for them,” she says.

Note: Decluttering is not a cure for anxiety disorders but is simply one action, in addition to seeking medical care, that may ease symptoms.

The decluttering trend can create unrealistic standards

With all of the perfectly clean and well-decorated homes gracing Pinterest and the social media feeds of influencers, interior designers and lifestyle bloggers, it can be easy to feel like your home doesn’t stack up.

But what we often forget when looking at images on social media is that the majority of the shots we’re seeing are styled for photos. There could actually be heaps of dirty laundry right outside the frame, says Renn.

For some, seeing images of tidy homes can lead to positive action. But pay attention if the content you’re consuming is just making you feel guilty or unworthy.

“I think it follows the general phenomenon we see where people compare themselves to this very perfectly cultivated image they see on social media,” says Renn. “Try to be mindful of where you’re falling. If you’re spending a lot of time on Pinterest looking at perfect rooms, ask yourself if it’s inspiring you or creating an impossible standard.”

You’ll need to find what works for you

If you decide that it’s time to cut some of the clutter out of your life, give yourself some wiggle room. And remember that less stuff doesn’t equate to no stuff.

“If you declutter for a weekend and it only lasts a few days, maybe you actually need some space for whatever piles back up. We all have those traps, whether it’s paperwork, clothing or kids' toys,” says Renn. “If that’s the stuff that keeps cropping in, maybe there needs to be a space in your home for those items. That’s the stuff that must make your life meaningful or functional.”