Can house clutter actually cause depression?
During March 2020, my house felt tidy, I had so much spare time in my day that I could declutter and tidy until my mind felt content. My friends still remind me of the day I hoovered my loft – who even does that?! To be fair, there was good reason. In the same vein, who even gets a house extension that includes the building of an adjoining loft and new roof but does not clear the current loft first?
Everything in the loft had a thick layer of dust covering it. The warm Easter weekend provided the perfect circumstances to remove everything from the loft, pile it in the garden, clear the dust, sort the ‘stuff’, and put things back in an orderly clean way. I still experience a feeling of calm when I think of our loft now. Sometimes just the thought of clutter can induce a strong feeling of overwhelm for me, I can easily appreciate how this negativity would strengthen if I were to be constantly looking at clutter.
The dictionary defines clutter as a collection of things lying about in an untidy state. When clutter and the collection of it becomes disordered, specialists call it hoarding disorder. Research has shown that hoarding symptoms are positively correlated with trait anxiety and depressive symptoms. However, it is difficult to know whether the hoarding causes the symptoms, or the symptoms cause the hoarding. If the amount of clutter around your home interferes with your everyday living or causes you significant distress, please reach out to your GP. In this article, I will focus on the clutter of 21st-century living rather than the disorder.
I see a link between clutter and food - many struggle to eat the best foods for their body because of the enormity of reasonably priced processed foods available. When it tastes so good and costs so little it takes a lot of determination to say no. With ‘stuff’ so cheap and accessible there is a similar problem. I remember when my children were toddlers discussing with friends how nipping into the pound shop with the offer of “you can buy anything you want” eases a shopping trip.
When I was small my parents would save for a year to buy me the things I wanted, and I would receive them as birthday and Christmas gifts. This was not because they were poor, they certainly were not rich, but things were less accessible. Nowadays, everywhere I look there is stuff to buy with pocket money. Interestingly, despite stuff being cheaper, the data shows that we spend more in total. This leads to the logical assumption that we either throw away quicker or surround ourselves with more.
I use the word stuff because mostly these things are not ethically produced or necessarily good quality – but as with food, there is a brain process that happens when you buy it, called a shopper’s high. Our instinctual behaviours follow the rule that those with stuff survive. The more wood the warmer you will be in winter, the more weapons the stronger you will be in a fight, the more food the less hungry etc. There is therefore still an innate desire within us to get enough stuff to ensure survival. But as with many of today’s problems, the speed of evolution is slower than the development of technology and unnatural living.
Alongside this, we experience anticipatory dopamine release in the brain when we shop. Interestingly the dopamine surge relates to the consideration – the anticipation – of buying something new rather than the item itself. This explains why we feel the rush whilst doing the shopping but not so much after.
Unless you are someone that can easily throw or give away your belongings, a cumulation of stuff inevitably leads to clutter. The authors of Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century found that stressful home environments, defined as those with an over-abundance of household objects, affected health and well-being with depressed moods increasing towards the evening.
I find that many people who come to see me have what I call a cluttered mind. They feel confused and broken, as we speak it is clear to me that their mind is muddled and full of stuff. Overstimulation makes concentration difficult, look around you, what is the visual stimulus like?
Clutter usually becomes clutter because the items do not have a ‘home’. Some people suggest decluttering enough so that every one of your possessions has a place. When your space feels organised and any causes of overstimulation are removed, it becomes easier to organise your mind.
So, next time you feel overwhelmed with life, take yourself into a stimulus-free room to clear your mind and create a plan. If this is more doable, consider decluttering your home and recognising the dopamine rush to understand and stop the shop!