When I unpack in a hotel room, it goes from clean to chaos in under a minute. My husband affectionately refers to me as a tornado. He can also accurately assess my mental state based on how disorganized my office is.
Living in a messy space takes a notable toll on my mental well-being, and if you struggle with anxiety — or even if you don’t — your clutter is bad for your mental health, too.
“Like our minds, so goes our environment,” said Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist who studies mindfulness and behavior change.
The KonMari craze of tidying up is just as much about taming our latent anxiety as it is about taming our stuff. Marie Kondo’s “sparking joy” concept of keeping only things that make us happy resonates so widely because it can actually lift a mental load — one many of us never knew we had.
People are giddy to get rid of clutter anxiety because they’ve been clinging to it for years — decades! — often subconsciously. As we collectively tidy and exhale, thrift stores across the country are awash in our extra stuff.
Brewer said the mind reacts well to an orderly environment because our brains thrive on being able to quickly scan and gauge our surroundings. “Our brains are set up to predict the future,” he said, explaining we feel more comfortable around certainty.
A space that is messy barrages us with unnecessary stimulation, triggering undercurrents of tension. It’s like an overstuffed “inbox” that we’re staring at but pretend to ignore. Studies show people who live in a cluttered environment are more likely to procrastinate and have a harder time sleeping.
The longer the disorganization is there, the more unmanageable it seems, and the more it weighs on our psyche.
“It can make our minds feel cluttered and closed down,” said Brewer.
And let’s be honest: It’s embarrassing to have a messy living space. It made me feel guilty.
As someone prone to anxiety and depression, I didn’t realize how much the clutter aggravated my mood until it was gone. This is true whether I was in my apartment or away from it.
Why? When our environment is unkempt, anxiety can bleed into other parts of our lives, making us feel badly about ourselves. Researchers have known for years that being around clutter can raise stress levels, especially among women — who can find it difficult to manage and organize their family’s possessions.
Inger Burnett-Zeigler, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said a disorganized environment is a constant visual reminder of things left undone. It can make people feel “like they’re overwhelmed, and their life is out of control and in chaos.”
On the flip side, studies show that women who see their homes as restorative feel less depressed throughout the day. Having order and simplicity in your space can free up your mind.
“You’re opening yourself up to new possibilities that may have been overwhelmed by the physical clutter,” said Burnett-Zeigler.
When we hide that pile of clothes in the closet or fill our homes with stuff we don’t need, we take away space for things that might bring us meaning and yes, spark joy.
Here’s what happened when I cleaned up and calmed down.
Taming the tornado
When I married an orderly minimalist, I hoped I could absorb his structured tendencies. But five years into our marriage, I was still leaving a trail of clutter behind me. Notebooks, kitchen towels and water glasses would appear all over the apartment; something I didn’t notice until my husband went on vacation and stopped putting them away for me. I felt like I was constantly picking up after myself, yet nothing ever stayed organized. My inability to keep an immaculate home — despite my best efforts — made my chronic anxiety worse.
Brewer, who serves as director of research and innovation at the Brown University Mindfulness Center, explained why the mess grated my nerves. “Anxiety and stress have these habit loops,” said Brewer. “Just having visual stimuli around that are triggering can lead to those loops getting perpetuated.”
I didn’t know why I was so messy or how to fix it. But in 2015 — before Netflix brought the KonMari concept to millions — I picked up Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” It gave me the tools to KonMari my home. Her book guided me as I figured out what to get rid of, what to keep and how to organize it all.
When I was done, I felt a peace of mind I’d desperately been lacking. I wasn’t spending time on ineffective cleaning sessions.
“Messiness can consume mental energy and physical energy,” said Burnett-Zeigler. “By getting rid of that, we can open ourselves up to spending time in different ways. And that can be a really powerful transition.”
Why folding matters
The KonMari method of folding is brilliant for people who don’t know how to organize items such as tops, underwear and pajamas. They get folded into tight little rectangles. It’s sort of like if you put books in a drawer, spine side up. Socks and scarves get rolled. It saves space while making each item adorably visible.
On the rare occasion that my drawers become un-KonMari’d, they make me feel sort of angry when I look in them. But when I see everything all at once in a neatly organized bundle, I feel calm and orderly. I was surprised at how refreshing it was.
One of the best ways to avoid stressing about cleaning is to give everything a home. This simple idea was a turning point for me. When I do slip up and forget to put something back — my headphones should go in a specific pouch, not my pockets — there’s a notable rise in anxiety trying to find it.
Tackling my books was a bit harder.
Books are sacred to a lot of people, and Kondo faced a lot of bibliophile backlash when it came to the prospect of culling their inventory.
While some people might get joy simply from being surrounded by books, I live in a small apartment where I have space for only one bookshelf. Yet I had three in my bedroom. And the unread pages were judging me. I took Kondo’s advice and kept the ones that sparked joy and sold or donated the rest. If I ever want to read “Catcher in the Rye” again, I can check it out free. I realized I love reading more than I love keeping books, so my library card gets a lot more use.
It’s been four years, and I’m KonMari for life. Mostly.
I don’t live by all of Kondo’s rules; I don’t greet my home every day or thank my belongings for their service. She also recommends keeping 30 books, but my shelves are filled with about 250. I’ve used the parts of her process that work for me. Some people don’t need a method to stay tidy. I am not one of those people.
While I can fall back into my old patterns quicker than I’d like, I’d say I’m living 70 percent clutter-free. But the fact that I can occupy a space that isn’t always in disarray means I am calmer and more at peace both in and away from home. My apartment is now a place to relax, not a place of unfinished tasks. So I thank Marie Kondo for helping me figure out my brain thrives on order. Even in the sock drawer.
Note: This story was updated to more fully explain this quote from Judson Brewer: “Our brains are set up to predict the future.”