7 Ways Decluttering Can Support Your Mental Health
While clutter can affect concentration, mental health, and emotional wellbeing, it can also be a symptom of what is already going on in our minds. Sometimes, clutter can be a physical symptom of our mental state. But the act of letting go of items and acknowledging what we own can help identify behavioral patterns, bring closure, and even boost your mood.
Mental health is complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all for healing. But decluttering your home is one of many ways you can learn about your own patterns and emotions by evaluating belongings. Anyone can dig in, let go, and see immediate results in their surroundings. It takes time, but the relief decluttering can bring can feel like a weight lifted.
Here are some of the most significant ways decluttering can help support mental health.
1. It strengthens decision-making.
When struggling mentally, making decisions can become overwhelming, adding further to the anxiety or confusion. But decluttering your home can help strengthen decision-making skills. As you begin tidying, ask yourself: Can I acquire this again if I ever absolutely need it? Do I have the ability to solve issues in the future without this item? Having an inner conversation about how you can support yourself if you are in need in the future, and letting go of items as a result, leads to confident decision-making and less second-guessing.
"There's a parallel process that takes place when we declutter: Not only are we allowing ourselves to let go of physical objects, we are choosing to let go of 'shoulds'—whether that sense of obligation is to others or is self-imposed. How often do people believe they should hold on to their children's items for years, whether or not their kids agree? Or cling to so-called family heirlooms that only remind us of intergenerational trauma?" says Jessica Magenheimer, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified brain-spotting therapist. "Shoulds are driven by people-pleasing, and people-pleasing is often a trauma response—a knee-jerk reaction that doesn't align with our values or desires."
Magenheimer adds that when we mindfully choose to let go of excess stuff, we also restore our sense of agency and self-efficacy. "We move toward what serves us and leave what doesn't. That's pretty magical in my book," she says.
2. It helps shape identity.
Our possessions can be a physical indicator of who we believe we are, who society told us we had to be, or who we want to be. Family, culture, community expectations, personal history, and labels we've been given all contribute to how we perceive ourselves. What we believe we should have ownership of reinforces that identity and affects our overall mental health.
Expensive things might symbolize status, or we might value an item because it is special. But who are we when those things are no longer with us? That is when we get to choose who we are instead of being shaped by outside factors.
"Many times, we assign meaning to something without consciously realizing it," says Rachel Wright, psychotherapist and sex and relationship wellness expert. "Taking time to declutter can give you a moment with each item to ask yourself what it means to you, along with its practical function. We don't acknowledge or realize how much our emotions play into our decision to keep things around."
Decluttering gives us an opportunity to break the status quo, end generational trauma, and consciously choose the life we want to lead. You might not need a fancy purse, specific clothes, or big volumes on your bookshelf to showcase wealth, education, status, ability, or value to others anymore.
3. It relieves anxiety.
Patterns can help relieve anxiety. Decluttering your home involves creating a pattern by sorting similar items, taking inventory, and organizing what stays. By clearing surfaces each morning and night, you can create a pattern that helps alleviate ADHD, distraction, and more.
"For individuals who struggle with anxiety, decluttering can sometimes be used as a coping mechanism to release anxious energy," says Nidhi Tewari, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health therapist with a decade's experience treating high-performing CEOs and leaders coping with trauma and anxiety disorders. "The process of organizing requires that you be present, so it can be grounding in instances where anxiety is heightened."
As a mindfulness exercise, Tewari suggests checking in with each of your five senses throughout the decluttering process "to focus on the here-and-now, and notice how you're feeling moment to moment."
4. It boosts your mood.
The act of tidying up itself is a mood booster. In fact, refreshing a space by removing clutter—making a perceived change in environment—can help with depression. It is not simply about keeping a space tidy and mess-free; decluttering should also involve moving things around, letting go of items, and seeing the fruits of your work as surfaces clear up.
After a dedicated decluttering session, many people report feeling more energetic, clearer-headed, and a sense of accomplishment and pride. It is short-term relief, but the effects of tidying a small area can be an excellent springboard to find the energy and strength to take additional steps to heal and support mental health in other ways, such as seeking help from a professional therapist.
"Anytime our behaviors—no matter how big or small—take us closer to achieving our goal, the better we tend to feel and the more productive we become. There is a sense of mastery and accomplishment that comes with completing a task, and it's this feeling that increases the likelihood we will continue to be motivated," says Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in stress, anxiety, depression, and relationships.
"Cleaning a smaller space, for example, can serve as an initial step to tackling larger projects. In addition, the actual act of cleaning and decluttering can decrease overall stress by lowering cortisol levels (our stress hormone) and increasing endorphins (our feel-good hormone)."
5. It sets boundaries.
Clutter can be a result of a lack of support at home or not being on the same page as others in your household. It can be frustrating to feel like you're the only person in your household who cares about a mess, but decluttering can help set boundaries and provide relief by emphasizing what you're willing to have in your home.
"We often think of decluttering in terms of our physical possessions. We can also think of it as it relates to our relationships; boundaries that no longer serve us and stories about who we are that we have found to be untrue along. A big part of growing up is learning what to embrace and what to let go of," says Mckensie Mack, founder of McKensie Mack Group and Boundary Work.
When paired with decluttering, boundary work could mean choosing to no longer be the keeper of all the family artifacts, breaking guilt for letting go of family heirlooms, creating a space that's sacred and tidied daily (even if it's something small like a bedside table), or removing belongings of people who don't reside at your home.
6. It brings closure.
Closure is often highly desired after a loss. While many people think this can only be achieved from a final conversation with someone, letting go of belongings related to a wound stemming from loss can help process pain and give closure. Give yourself time to acknowledge the meaning of an item, then let go of its symbolism, whether it's something from a past relationship or items from a parent that have no personal meaning.
Sometimes a hard-to-toss item didn't even belong to the person or wasn't particularly important to them. Instead, it could be something that symbolizes a time you had with someone—like a couch from a past marriage the two of you sat on for a decade or your dad's old newspapers you would have helped him toss out if he were still alive.
"Our brains attach meaning to material objects. When those material objects are still in our lives, we may have a more difficult time letting go. Decluttering external environment supports the decluttering of your internal environment," says Dr. Courtney Tracy, a licensed clinical social worker, doctor of clinical psychology, and voice for mental health throughout the pandemic.
7. It assists with long-term goals.
Belongings aren't necessarily meant to be kept long-term. So when something meant to be maintained with short-term memory becomes ongoing, it's like carrying a backpack around and loading it with extra bricks every day. But all that mental weight adds up. Every time we have a task to complete, papers to go through, and more possessions to keep track of, our brains fight to file which is the most important to keep at the forefront.
By completing tasks and getting rid of items, decluttering can help combat a constant tug-of-war of importance in our brains. The less information we have stored, the more mental space available for urgent tasks and memories. This clarity helps relieve stress and anxiety. Tossing out that item you said you'd fix years ago, removing clothes from the closet and donating them, or shredding a big stack of papers frees up not only space in your home but also tasks on a seemingly endless to-do list.