If you’re anything like me, you have the best of intentions regarding that pile of papers stealthily taking over your desk, the collection of single socks looking for a mate and the recycle bin threatening to overflow. I’m not procrastinating; I’m waiting for a solid chunk of time that I can devote to doing the job properly. The problem is that all this clutter isn’t just weighing on your mind and causing bad anxiety. It might even be making you physically ill.
Clutter doesn’t refer just to your dust-collecting trinkets, either. It can also include those self-destructive habits and toxic relationships that are weighing you down and cluttering your well-being. Even your computer desktop or email inbox can collect clutter that impedes your efficiency. Cleaning up the clutter — emotional, digital or physical — can improve your physical health, lower your stress hormone levels and eliminate possible causes of weight gain or insomnia.
How Clutter Triggers Bad Anxiety
Clutter can trigger anxiety and the reason for this has to do with the stress hormone cortisol. Even at rest, our minds are constantly vigilant, taking in sounds, sights and smells and processing these stimuli. When our environment is cluttered, our brains work overtime to process the information, triggering a cortisol response. Unfortunately, cortisol and stress go hand in hand; cortisol is also known as the fight or flight hormone. That’s right — your clutter is making you feel like you’re in danger. Over time, cortisol increases the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and other unpleasant side effects.
I found a recent study particularly fascinating. In it, researchers split participants into two groups, one of them in a tidy kitchen and the other in a cluttered kitchen. Snacks were available to both groups, but it was the group in the cluttered kitchen who ate more than twice as many cookies as the group in the clean kitchen. If you’re finding yourself stress-eating, your clutter might be to blame.
Ways to Break the Cycle
When I’m having trouble tackling a particularly big job, I find it helpful to break it into smaller pieces. If you’ve got some clutter that needs organizing, but the job seems too overwhelming to accomplish, break it into bite-sized pieces. Promise yourself you’re going to spend 10 minutes per day sorting, scrubbing, filing, deleting or whatever you need to chip away at the clutter.
While it may not seem like much at first, 10 minutes is an amount of time almost anyone can spare, and it’s small enough to not seem intimidating. The real beauty of it is that it adds up quickly. In less than a week, you’ll have spent an hour solving your clutter crisis. You might even find yourself extending the time each day a bit once you immerse yourself in the task. After a few weeks, it will become a habit, and you’ll really start to enjoy the effects of less clutter.
Other ways to improve emotional health require eliminating a different kind of clutter. Switch off the electronic devices demanding so much of your time and mental energy, and go for an invigorating walk. Reduce the time you spend around toxic people in your life. Try to find creative ways to avoid things that trigger your bad anxiety, and you’ll notice immediate improvements in the way you view the world around you.
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