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Why mess can be so bad for anxious people (and what to do about it)


Stacks of mail and papers cover your desk. Piles of clothes are piling up on your bedroom chair. Make-up, toiletries and other products invade your bathroom counter. Toys are strewn across the living room floor. For some people, a messy house is a minor nuisance or something they can easily overlook. For others, it can have a significant impact on their mental health.

As Wendy Wisner, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, explains in a blog post on the Scary Mommy site, “Cleaning up clutter isn’t just another thing on the to-do list, like preparing meals. of my children, change the oil in the car or make my next dentist appointment. It’s a sort of furious panic.

“It’s the feeling that I literally can’t breathe with all the mess that fills our house,” she says. “It’s a feeling that the world is a chaotic place that I can’t control, and all of that chaos is represented by the loud, unruly and anguished wreckage that is my living room.

Research also seems to confirm this. A small 2009 study found that women who described their home using words like “cluttered,” “messy,” and “chaotic” had levels of the stress hormone cortisol that did not show normal decline and healthy during the day. Rather, their cortisol levels followed a flatter pattern that has been associated with greater chronic stress and has been linked to other negative health outcomes.

A 2016 survey of people with mild to severe congestion problems found that their messy living spaces negatively impacted their perception of their home and their overall life satisfaction.

It’s important to recognize that when excessive, crowding can be both a cause and an effect of mental health problems, said Cindy Glovinsky, who has worked as both a psychotherapist and a professional organizer during the course. of her career. Many of her clients with more severe congestion problems had been diagnosed with disorders such as depression, attention deficit disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“And grieving people can sometimes go through a temporary period of clutter and disorganization that gets better as they begin to heal from their loss,” said Glovinsky, author of “Making Peace with Your Things.” life”.

Why the disorder can trigger anxiety

Generally speaking, our external environment can have a strong influence on how we feel internally and how we behave. Think about how energetic you are at a concert or sporting event, or how calm you are when walking in nature, said Gina Delucca, clinical psychologist at Wellspace SF in California.

“Our surroundings can affect our mood for better or for worse, and different people may react differently to certain environments – for example, some people may feel bored by crowds of people at a music festival,” he said. -she adds. “Your home environment is no different.”

Likewise, individuals have different levels of tolerance for crowding and disorganization, Glovinsky noted. People prone to anxiety (or people with the very sensitive personality trait) may have a lower threshold for disorder in their environment than the average person.

“Some people actually like a certain amount of chaos in their surroundings because it makes them freer and more creative, while others feel overwhelmed by even a small amount of clutter,” Glovinsky said. “Those who feel overwhelmed can become anxious or depressed as a result.”

“It’s the feeling that I literally can’t breathe with all the mess that fills our house.”

– Wendy Wisner, Associate Editor at Scary Mommy

If you fall into the latter camp, then a house in disarray can make you feel mentally overloaded, exhausted, or lacking in control – unpleasant sensations that are all too familiar to people living with anxiety.

“For many people, their home is a sanctuary away from the overstimulation of the world and its day-to-day operations,” said Kim Strong, a licensed clinical social worker at Wellspace SF. “A messy or disorganized environment at home can be a tangible reminder of that chaos and can cause feelings of loss of control or anxiety. Looking at a messy room can be a reminder of a long to-do list, unfinished tasks, or in general, can make it harder to move around and find the things you need. “

Decluttering, however, can be a productive way for some people to channel their anxious energy.

“It can also serve as a pleasant mental distraction, taking your attention away from whatever worried you in the first place,” Delucca said. “You may feel more in control afterwards and experience a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction, which can help relieve some of your anxiety.”

How to cope if a messy house triggers your anxiety

Experts offer advice to people whose anxiety is strongly affected by the state of their living space.

When you live on your own, it may be easier to maintain your home according to your cleaning or organization standards. Maybe you already have your own system in place. But if you don’t, The Spruce, a home decorating and improvement website, recommends that you declutter your space room by room. Or, you can break the process down into even smaller pieces by just focusing on your bedroom closet, for example.

Before you begin, create five baskets: one for items to put away, one for items to recycle, one for items to repair or clean up, one for garbage, and one for donations. Next, tackle each room part by part, making sure you have completed one area completely before moving on to the next.

Once you’ve got things organized, it takes some effort to keep them that way. Strong recommends using a mantra like “finish the job” whenever you do everyday things like open mail or change clothes.

“This helps ensure that junk mail is actually thrown away or recycled and that dirty laundry gets to the basket,” she said.

However, when you share your home with other people – be it a significant other, a roommate, children, or other relatives – it can be more difficult to maintain a level of order that does not make your anxiety excessive. . Below, experts share some tips to help you cope.

Talk to your partner or roommates about your individual level of clutter tolerance.

Talk about what you need to keep your sanity under control. Also ask them to share their preferences.

“If theirs is different from yours, approach it as a problem that you can solve together so that everyone’s needs can be met and met as much as possible,” Glovinsky said.

Ask for help – and be specific about what you need.

Do you feel like you have more household chores than you have time for? Are you constantly cleaning up after your spouse or children? Even if you find the organization therapeutic, it can be difficult to deal with the mess on your own when you already have a lot of it on your plate. If so, you probably need other people in your home to participate.

“Ask your family, partner or roommates to help you out a bit instead of trying to do it all on your own,” Delucca said. “Be specific about the tasks you would like others to do, especially if they are not used to taking things in hand automatically. By not saying anything, you can increase frustration and resentment on top of your anxiety, which will make you feel worse. “

If that’s within your budget, consider bringing in a housekeeper to come over every now and then. “Sometimes the extra cost can be worth the time and energy you get back in return,” Delucca said.

At least keep one room super clean and organized, if you can.

That way when the rest of the house is a mess, you have a place where you can escape the chaos – “even if it’s the bathroom,” Glovinsky said.

If you have kids, teach them how to tidy up.

Expect children – younger ones, in particular – to need some (or a lot) of getting started in this department.

“Help kids learn to pick up toys during ‘cleaning time’ and keep their belongings in their own rooms or other designated areas,” Glovinsky said. “No child is born knowing this, and some children need more guidance than others. Adults too often assume that cleaning a room is easy for a child when it might not be. ”

You can also try to turn the turnaround into play, Strong suggested. Set a timer and have the kids put as many things in their place as possible before the bells go off.

“You would be amazed at how much you can actually do in just 60 seconds,” she said. “The emotional benefits – like less anxiety – of a clean, organized place can be had in a short time, indeed.

Take a deep breath and accept that your home is not as cared for as you would like.

Your dream of having one of those perfectly organized Instagram-worthy living spaces might not be realistic for you – at least not right now. Try to make peace with it if you can.

“For example, if you have young kids, there’s a good chance things are always a little messy,” Delucca said. “By practicing acceptance and letting go, we can sometimes offer ourselves some relief from our anxiety and the pressure we put on ourselves to have things a certain way, rather than constantly trying to control and control ourselves. fight against our reality.

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