Take small steps toward a cleaner home and improved well-being to help thwart depression.
Some symptoms of depression are well known: lethargy, a loss of interest in things you once found enjoyable, hopelessness, and deep sadness. But there are other depression warning signs you may not be aware of: stacks of dirty dishes in the sink; a towering pile of unfolded laundry that you washed days ago; boxes, wrappers, and bags dotting the disheveled landscape of your home.
We’re all prone to messy moments, but when intense disorganization is accompanied by symptoms of high stress, anxiety, burnout, or depression, it’s often an indicator that you may be struggling with your mental health.
It’s no wonder that less-than-ideal mental well-being can often lead to unorganized surroundings. According to the DSM-5, the handbook that mental health professionals use to guide their diagnoses, the criteria for depression include a diminished motivation and interest in activities, a slow-down of physical movement, loss of energy, and indecisiveness—all things that usually come in handy in order to keep your home clean and organized.
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Scientific studies frequently find correlations between mental health and clutter. For example, one 2016 study from the University of New Mexico found that clutter directly interfered with the participants’ ability to feel pleasure in a space.
And the tricky part is, if you’re grappling with your mental well-being, but still desire a clean, organized home, you may, unfortunately, find yourself trapped in a vicious cycle, something Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD, clinical health psychologist and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, calls a chicken-or-egg dilemma. “Recent studies have shown that clutter in our homes is associated with higher cortisol levels [our stress hormone], but it’s still unclear which comes first,” she says. “Is it that when we are under stress, our ability to maintain a well-organized home becomes impaired? Or when our home is in disarray, does that make us feel more stressed, overwhelmed, depression prone, and anxious?”
She believes it’s a combination of both—high stress prevents us from organizing our homes, but the clutter itself can also lead to stress.
Shira Gill, organizing expert and author of Minimalista, thinks clutter goes even further than taking an emotional toll on your mind, indirectly affecting other areas of our lives. She says clutter can additionally lead to relationship strains, along with financial stressors, which can include late fees on lost bills and overspending by buying duplicates. Clutter can also distract you from focusing on other priorities.
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The Positive Benefits of a Clean, Organized Home
Experts agree that tidy, organized spaces can improve mental health. Gill says that a well-edited home can create “a whole cascade of mental health benefits,” which can include a sense of clarity and control, an improved quality of life, a boosted sense of confidence, an increase in productivity, and a more tranquil atmosphere.
But whether you’re dealing with a mental health condition or not, the organization takes time and commitment. It’s just more difficult when you finally get yourself out of bed and you’re faced with a choice: shower or fold laundry? Cleaning may feel like a superhuman effort, but know that even if it’s simply putting a dish away, it can pay off in big ways for your psyche.
“Decluttering requires decision-making, emotion regulation, prioritization, and patience,” Dattilo says. “We receive important cues about how we’re doing by what we’re doing, and when we maintain an organized home, we reinforce the message that we are worth the time, effort, and practice it takes to live in a cared-for and curated space. In the same way that a cluttered space can make us feel overwhelmed and anxious, a well-organized and tidy space can make us feel calm and safe.”