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Wellness Wednesday

The mental health benefits of decluttering

A cluttered environment doesn't always indicate a cluttered mind...but a little organization never hurts.
A cluttered environment doesn't always indicate a cluttered mind...but a little organization never hurts.Jay Gabler/MPR
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by Jill Riley

January 12, 2022

Here we are: it's a new year, the pandemic is stretching on, most of us have spent more time in our house than we ever imagined. And so maybe it's time to think about reorganizing, and decluttering. There’s a mental health benefit that can come along with organizing and decluttering. Dr. Lisa Hardesty, a psychologist with the Mayo Clinic, joins Jill Riley to explain.

Jill Riley: I feel like if I'm living in piles of organized mess, that it can maybe be an indication of something else going on. But really, that kind of environment where we just feel like everything is disorganized and a mess: that can really affect the way we feel, can’t it?

Lisa Hardesty: It does. When I'm sitting in a mess, I may feel more dysregulated. I might have some feelings of inadequacy, or just a sense of, “Oh, I need to do more.” On the other hand, those piles can sometimes represent things: when I'm more internally cluttered, I may start to see that in my external environment as well, and it becomes very linked together.

Yeah, a few years ago, I remember my New Year's resolution was to get rid of piles - and I meant it in a literal fashion and a figurative way as well. But you know, I still get into this thing where sometimes buying new stuff makes me happy. I mean, what if that's the case?

I think that is the sense that a lot of people would have that, you know, “I get these new things, feel happy.” And we're struggling. I mean, this has been a tough…I used to, say, a year. And now I'm saying years, right? And I think we are looking for, “What can I do? Maybe I'll buy something.” I mean, raise your hand, if you've had more Amazon packages delivered this year.

I have two hands up right now.

When we do get something new, there is a little bit of our brains that responds to that. We have a little dose of dopamine and our pleasure center lights up. So we get those positive feelings. And then when you're stuck at home, and there's nervousness, worry, tension, and maybe even depression, anxiety about what's happening outside with Covid. And all of the things that are happening with schools in the world, then that little hit of the pleasure center feels great, but it's very time limited and it's over. So we might have that initial positive response, but it doesn't last. And there is a lot of literature, a lot of research, that stuff does not equal true happiness. People that win the lottery: there's this initial burst of happiness, and then afterwards, they're actually more unhappy than the general population. So, that'll make us feel good about never winning the lottery.

I have a hard time letting some stuff go. What's going on there?

Everyone has a different level of attachment to things - and we often have emotional components. You know, “This doll, my mom passed away a few years ago,” and “I'm telling you, if anyone took the ring that I have, I feel like I would melt into the floor.” So we have this stuff, and we attach emotion to it. And so it's very common. On the other hand, it may feel overwhelming. If I have piles or a closet that is so cluttered, I can hardly see, I can really not walk into a storage room….that can feel very overwhelming.

So it's really important just to just settle in and ask yourself, what is it about this stuff? If you can get to the “Why? What is it that is serving as a barrier?” - it might help. And trying to deconstruct the emotion that may feel so, “Maybe I am a little bit overwhelmed and I just am not ready to do this,” or, “It feels like I'm letting go of my my daughter's childhood if I get rid of her weeble wobble doll.” So what's that about? And then how do I preserve that, so when I can have that self awareness, that insight…now I can actually operate on that and do something with that.

I wonder if you could speak to some of the mental health benefits that can come along with decluttering and home organization.

With COVID, if I can quickly start there, there is a strong sense of lack of control, lack of predictability. So, first and foremost, being able to work on some decluttering right now can give that sense of control. What we do know about our overall mental health, and just wellbeing in general, is that you can focus more. When I have a lot of things around me, if you look around wherever you are, look around your space right now, [and] there are a lot of distractions, you're probably not at your optimal best with your attention, focus and concentration. [When] there's less distractions, I might be able to have more productivity.

There's also some great work that's been done about creativity. So I've opened up space, I've opened up the bolts in my mind, I'm not thinking about, “Every time I see this mess that pile”…and we can walk by a pile and actually not see it, but it's still clicking for us, we're still seeing it. So once I've [cleaned up], I've opened up the vaults for more time, creativity, innovation. Once I get that pile, or that decluttering task done, it's easier to keep it up. There's actually literature [showing] that sleep is improved, self-esteem, and even relationships. Because if I feel that I don't want people to see this mess, this clutter, I may not have people over. Now, again, Covid is a real thing here. But in general, if I'm not proud of my environment, I might not want people over. And even just physically, sometimes allergens are trapped when we have a lot of clutter. So there may be even just some general physical health purposes and outcomes with decluttering. So lots of really great things can happen.

So you know, what does it look like? And each task may require this level of evaluation and self appraisal and looking at “what's going on with me with this?” So if it's piles of things that don't have those strong emotional attachment, let's take that as maybe a different example. Enlist someone who's good at this. If this is not your super skill, bring someone in: either a formal organizer that can help, but even an informal [helper]. I had someone that brought in a close loved one that she could trust, because she felt a little bit of embarrassment…like “Oh, I have to do this.” And they worked together and challenged each other. Her friends challenged her to let go of some of those things. Some people like to do it all at once. Some people take it in small pieces. I just emptied out my entire closet, I hauled everything out.

And it’s beautiful when it's empty.

I cleaned it and spent time in it. It was so silly. But then before I put things back, I really challenged myself. When did I wear this? Or what about this? Do I really need this box that used to be my mom's…but it has her handwriting on it? Is there another use for it? So sometimes we’re more successful by just that one big “Let's take it all at once,” and sometimes we really do need that five, ten, fifteen minutes to start to make some progress.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on SpotifyAppleRSSRadio PublicStitcher, or Amazon Music.

Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley and produced by Anna Weggel and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License.