Why Clutter Stresses Us Out

green and white press drill on table

By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

Have you ever come home and felt stressed the moment you walk in the house? If you are like me, seeing the kid shoes everywhere, being unable to tell what socks on the floor are clean or dirty, and the tumbleweeds of dog hair (I swear I just swept yesterday). In that moment, feel my heart rate rise and wonder why my house looks like an explosion.

This unnecessary clutter raises my stress levels just thinking about it. How about you? In this post, we talk about why clutter increases our brain’s anxiety response. We will also explore why our darn amygdala dislikes clutter so much and ways to help make the clutter disappear, one step at a time.

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What is Clutter?

By definition, clutter is “untidiness, litter, and messy” (Oxford, 1989). This disorder of things in our life can include (but is not limited to):

  1. Unfiled papers and junk mail in multiple piles
  2. Dishes and pizza boxes cluttering up the kitchen
  3. Laundry, both clean and dirty, spread around the floor
  4. Disorganized cabinets (a.k.a. – the Tupperware cabinet or junk drawer)
  5. Random piles of things needing to be donated
  6. A closet stuffed full of school bags, winter jackets, and random shopping bags
  7. Pet hair, supplies, and food not really having a home
  8. A bathroom countertop full of products, hairbrushes, and toothpaste
  9. Toys everywhere! (if you have children, you know the chaos that comes with Legos)
  10. A vehicle full of coffee cups (I’m guilty of this)

Whether it is in your house, your car, or your work desk, clutter can impact your stress levels

Clutter and Your Brain

Clutter has an impact on several different parts of our brain. First, our insula. This small part of our limbic system is located in our prefrontal cortex and provides our brain with all of the sensory information (like smell, taste, feel, and sight). Under normal circumstances, the insula communicates with the prefrontal cortex the physical information about our environment. When we experience clutter, our insula goes on high alert. This alter makes the insula over-stimulated, keeping it from focusing on other important sensory information (like paying the bill on the crowded table).

grayscale photography of a messy office
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As the insula is bringing in all of this extra sensory information, the prefrontal cortex is starting to find a way to determine what is actually important. It is sifting through the clutter and trying to prioritize what needs to happen. This sifting causes our problem-solving ability to decrease as there is so much information coming in.

Next in line is that darn amygdala. With the insula bringing in too much information and the prefrontal cortex spinning its wheels, that darn amygdala sounds the alarm of being stressed. This alarm is received by the hypothalamus, who then tells a new part of the brain, the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is a cool little gland located between the darn amygdala and the hypothalamus that helps monitor the stress hormone, cortisol, in the blood.

Clutter and Your Neurotransmitters

It is no secret that clutter can increase the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. Clutter has an impact on other neurotransmitters in your brain as well:

  • Oxytocin – There is a difference between feeling “at home” and “having too much of a good thing.” When we hang on to too many things, our brain lowers its ability to hang on to oxytocin. This love and bonding neurotransmitter is responsible for us feeling connected to the things and people we care about. With a lot of cortisol in the blood stream, there is no place for the oxytocin to get in to help you feel connected.
  • GABA – When the insula is sharing all of this sensory information, the production of GABA is overcome by the production of cortisol, as well as the stress neurotransmitter, adrenaline. This serves your brain in two different ways: 1). It prepares your brain to be active and focused on what needs to happen. 2) It allows your hippocampus to remember and store information about what is happening.
  • Glutamate – As clutter triggers the stress response in the brain, your darn amygdala decreases the production of this must-have neurotransmitter. Glutamate is known to help us focus, learn new skills, and repairing communication pathways in the brain. Without it, you’re going to be a bit more forgetful, and struggle to focus and make new habits.

Clutter and Your Stress Response

Since that darn amygdala is saying it is stressed, the pituitary gland tells the adrenal gland that there isn’t enough cortisol in the blood stream. You know what happens next? You got it! The adrenal gland tells the body to produce more cortisol! As the cortisol levels increase, so do the following symptoms:

  • Racing heart
  • chest pain
  • increase in respirations
  • body aches
  • Increased levels of exhaustion
  • Digestive issues
  • changes in sleep patterns
  • Overthinking
  • Avoiding responsibilities
  • weakened immune system

It is important to remember that everyone responds to stress differently. Like we talked about in the post, Amped-Up or Shut-Down: The Many Sides of Anxiety, some people respond to stress and clutter by fighting and taking action. Other people shut down and avoid things that feel uncomfortable. These ways of coping with stress are normal.

Decreasing the Clutter

Out of all the books out there, Marie Kondo’s is still my favorite for working through the clutter

This is a tough thing to do! Along with a lack of time, help, or even space, lacking all those much-needed neurotransmitters can sure make it hard to concentrate and gain motivation to clear up the clutter. There are some things you can do, right now, to start to make it a bit easier:

white paper with note
Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com
  1. Create a SMART goal each week focusing on one part of the clutter. When we set simple, achievable, attainable, and realistic goals on an achievable timetable, we:
    1. Prepare our brain for a dopamine release, which increases our motivation to do something
    2. Initiate serotonin to let us feel happy about the progress we are making
    3. Give your prefrontal cortex guidance as to what we need to get done (priorities!!)
    4. Decrease the release of cortisol as we know when the tasks will be done
  2. Set up a routine cleaning schedule. That’s right. Creating a daily, weekly, monthly schedule can help get things organized, and stay that way. Hint: These can also double as mooring lines that help you keep your mental health on track! Examples include:
    1. Once a week go through all the papers on the table. Determine if they are needed and throw away the ones that are not.
    2. Do the dishes at the end of everyday/beginning of the morning
    3. Put away one load of laundry a day
    4. Wipe down the bathroom every Saturday
    5. Clean out the fridge the first Tuesday of the month
  3. Make de-cluttering fun! If we can make it fun, our brain will be tricked into releasing dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin! This means, we will also be a bit more motivated to take care of that clutter. Making it fun includes:
    1. Buy those cute organizing bins to help organize important papers
    2. Get the kids their own color laundry baskets
    3. Create cool designated spots for things (like the designated coffee spot in my kitchen)
    4. Get the family involved and make a game out of it (in my house, we have the color laundry game which is a combination of basketball meets musical chairs)
    5. Set a reward for once a task is completed. It can be simple (like an Epsom Salt Bath after you clean the bathtub), or it can be complex (like a bubble bath with wine and chocolate after the bathroom has been scrubbed down)
  4. Ask for help! Clutter has a way of making us feel ashamed, embarrassed, and alone. When we reach out for help, we are engaging in interpersonal effectiveness skills that:
    1. Creates oxytocin through our clear communication
    2. Promotes balance in our personal life
    3. Helps the prefrontal cortex discover what needs to be prioritized

Talk about some awesome ways to help prepare your brain to tackle that clutter! I want to thank you for taking time to learn more about why your brain struggles so much when clutter is present. I hope you can use this information to help you help your darn amygdala calm down.

To recap this post:

– Clutter raises your anxiety by overstimulating your insula

– Clutter makes it difficult for your prefrontal cortex to make decisions

– Clutter increases the production of cortisol, which decreases the production of the feel-good neurotransmitters

– You can tackle your clutter, a little bit at a time, to make your darn amygdala happier


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5 responses to “Why Clutter Stresses Us Out”

  1. Love your tip to create a cleaning schedule to minimize the stress that clutter can cause. I’ve also found that micro cleaning is game changing! This just means incorporating tiny cleaning tasks into our day and cleaning in super small ways throughout the day that only take a minute or two!

    1. It really does! Plus, when you accomplish that small cleaning cast, you are preparing your brain to release dopamine and serotonin, which also decreases the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It is an amazing tool that I think is underestimated

  2. […] last couple of posts, we have discussed the impact of clutter on anxiety. That clutter is known for zapping motivation, throwing our sleep out of balance, and making it […]

  3. Rebecca Gittins Bridges Avatar
    Rebecca Gittins Bridges

    Great article, not only telling us the why, but the what to do about it.

    1. Of course! It’s always great to have some solutions that are in your control

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