Why is a messy house an anxiety trigger for me and what can I do about it?

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by seeing the clutter and mess in your home? Have you ever walked in the door and felt overwhelmed by scattered papers, dirty dishes and messy clothes? Maybe you even argued because it bothers you more than it bothers your partner or housemates.

You are not alone. Many people report that a messy home can trigger feelings of stress and anxiety.

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

Do you ever feel that mess bothers you more than it bothers your partner or housemates?

Read More: Sorry Men There Is No ‘Dirt Blindness’ You Just Need To Do More Housework

cognitive overload

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

But the brain, it seems, prefers order and the single task to multitasking.

Order helps reduce competition for our attention and reduces the mental load. While some people may be better than others at ignoring distractions, distracting environments can overwhelm our cognitive abilities and memory.

Clutter, clutter, and mess can affect more than just our cognitive resources. They are also linked to our diet, productivity, mental health, parenting decisions, and even our willingness to donate money.

A woman looks at the camera while standing in a messy room.
Mess can profoundly affect mental well-being.

Are women more affected than men?

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

A study of 60 double-income couples found that women who lived in cluttered, stressful homes had higher levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) and increased symptoms of depression.

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

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

All of us will live with clutter and disorganization at some point in our lives. Sometimes, though, significant disorder issues can be linked to underlying mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding disorder, major depressive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and anxiety disorders.

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

Not every mess is a problem

It’s important to remember that clutter isn’t all bad and that we shouldn’t strive for perfection. The real houses don’t look like the ones in the magazines.

In fact, cluttered spaces can result in increased creativity and spark new ideas.

Living in constant clutter is not productive, but striving for perfectionism in cleanliness can also be counterproductive. Perfectionism itself is associated with feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and mental health problems.

A man cleans an already tidy house.
We should not aim for perfection.

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

It’s important to remember that you have some say in what’s important to you and how you want to prioritize your time.

One approach is to try to reduce clutter. You could, for example, have a dedicated decluttering session every week. This could involve hiring a cleaning lady (if you can afford it) or playing some music or a podcast while you clean the house for an hour with the other family members.

Establishing this routine can reduce distractions, lighten your overall mental load, and ease the worry that the clutter will get out of hand.

You can also try microtidying. If you don’t have time for a thorough cleaning, take just five minutes to clean a small space.

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

A man and a child sort laundry together.
Managing the clutter is the job of the whole family.

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

Mess doesn’t define whether you’re a good or bad person, and sometimes it can even spur your creativity. Remember that you deserve success, meaningful relationships, and happiness, whether your office, home, or car is a mess or not.

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

If the disorder, perfectionism, or anxiety starts to feel uncontrollable, talk to your doctor 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 guided by values ‚Äč‚Äčthat are important to you.

Clutter and mess are more than just visual annoyances. They can have a profound impact on mental well-being, 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.

Read more: Men see the mess but aren’t judged for it the same way women are

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