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Could clutter be causing me to be anxious?

answered 09:04 AM EST, Mon January 16, 2012
Will simplifying my life help me to feel less anxiety? I was reading about an exercise whereby you take a small plastic bag around your house every day for a week or a month and fill one bag everyday with stuff that you are going to throw out or give to someone who will use it or benefit from it more than you. The authors of the article claimed that reducing the amount of stuff we live with in our homes can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Is this true? I think I could probably fill up a bag a day for a month with the stuff that’s overflowing in my house but I never considered that this stuff could be contributing to my anxiety…I am not even sure I understand how that could be.

Art Matthews Says...

The short answer is, maybe. It depends on the person and the amount of clutter. We do know that a person's environment can affect mood and stress level. Certain colors, like red as an example, are correlated with aggression and anger. But it isn't a universal experience or there would be bloody brawls inside many fast food restaurants. Clutter in the home or workspace of someone with a Type A personality would likely cause stress and for a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) clutter might cause a full blown panic attack. But people who become hoarders are both stressed and comforted by the stuff around them, a double bind that keeps them trapped in the behavior of collecting and unable to let go of the mountains of stuff in their environment. They have associated emotional or financial meaning with the stuff they collect. The suggestion in the article you read is a good one to give to those less fortunate because then we have created another purpose in de-cluttering, helping someone else. That sense of altruism allows us to let go and avoid thinking that we are simply "throwing it out."

To know if decluttering would help you, perhaps you could use a Mood Diary to record how you feel both emotionally and physiologically over a period of time, perhaps a month of daily entries (it doesn't have to take a lot of time). Match up things that happened in and around your personal space and consider the environmental factors including clutter. This will force you to develop a little more personal awareness and could feel challenging for you. If you can't come up with a word for how you feel emotionally, emphasize in your diary entries what you experienced from a physiological standpoint (i.e.; sweaty palms, heart pounding, knot in my stomach).

As always, if you are suffering with anxiety symptoms, it's a good idea to have a physical to determine that some physical illness isn't causing your symptoms. Don't just let your doc hand you a 'script for meds. Insist on bloodwork with thyroid panels and get the full once-over. Counseling can also help you manage stress and may only take a few sessions of instruction on stress management techniques to help you cope. Not everyone needs long-term therapy. If you think you might be becoming obsessed with collecting or your anxiety level increases just thinking about removing the clutter and things around you, you may want to consider a meeting with a counselor or psychologist who specializes in hoarding for an assessment and possible treatment, especially if others have been pressuring you to get rid of stuff, are offering to clean for you or have stopping coming into your home.

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Page last updated Jan 16, 2012

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