Why We Collect Clutter and How to Clear It


Why-We-Collect-Clutter-and-How-to-Clear-itI feel like a massive hypocrite writing this piece, because substantial messes are found in virtually every square foot of my home.

In fact, the last time I broached the topic of clutter in a blog, I posted a photo of my book piles and nut collection and was immediately contacted by a hoarding show to be “fixed” by an expert.

Even though I fail miserably at decluttering my home, I do know it’s an important piece of mental health — that our environments affect us more than we’d like to believe. And it’s not even the Post-its all over your desk, the plastic dog toys strewn about the floor, or the homework on the table: It can be the 99 files on your computer desktop, or the 28,000 emails you haven’t deleted.

In our modern society, when we get lambasted with information — dozens of pieces of junk mail in our physical mailbox and more in our email, not to mention social media — it’s an awesome task to stay on top of the clutter, and most of us don’t.

Refrigerators: Clutter Magnets

UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) studied the homes of 32 Los Angeles families over four years (2001 to 2005) and published their findings in the book Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century. The families were dual-income, middle-class households with school-age children and represented a wide range of occupations and ethnic groups.

But the results generated from almost 20,000 photos, 47 hours of family-narrated home video tours, and 1,540 hours of videotaped family interviews made clear one thing that virtually every middle-class American home has in common: lots of stuff.

Take the refrigerator.

The typical refrigerator in the study held 52 objects; the most crowded displayed 166 different objects (about half of the number of magnets on ours). In these homes, stuff covered as much as 90 percent of the fridge. According to a UCLA Magazine article explaining the study, “The Clutter Culture,” researchers noticed a correlation between the number of objects families put on the fridge and the rest of the stuff in their homes.

Clutter Leads to Distress

“The American workplace is intense and demanding. When we come home, we want material rewards,” says Elinor Ochs, director of CELF and a linguistic anthropologist. But the group’s study found that the bigger the mess, the more stress — at least for the moms interviewed.

Two of the CELF team’s psychologists, Darby Saxbe, PhD, and Rena Repetti, PhD, measured levels of cortisol in study participants’ saliva. The researchers found that higher cortisol levels were more likely in moms who used words like “mess” and “very chaotic” to describe their homes, and who had higher “stressful home scores.” Lower cortisol levels were more likely in moms who had higher “restorative home scores.”

In a report on their findings in the January 2010 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Drs. Saxbe and Repetti wrote:

These results held after controlling for marital satisfaction and neuroticism. Women with higher stressful home scores had increased depressed mood over the course of the day, whereas women with higher restorative home scores had decreased depressed mood over the day.

The Hoarding Brain

In 2012, David Tolin, PhD, and his Yale School of Medicine research team recruited three groups of people — those with hoarding disorders, those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and folks without any type of hoarding or OCD issue — to bring in a pile of junk mail from home. The pieces of mail were photographed, as were pieces of mail supplied by the lab.

Researchers had the participants lie in an MRI machine while viewing the photos and make a decision about which items should be kept or shredded.

Compared with the control and OCD groups, the people with hoarding disorders showed abnormally low brain activity in the insula (within the cerebral cortex) and the anterior cingulate cortex when they reviewed the lab mail. But the same brain regions lit up with hyperactivity when these people assessed their own possessions.

These are the same regions of the brain associated with pain, both physical and psychological. The more emotional attachment to an object, the greater the pain.

The results of the study were published in the August 2012 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry. As the abstract says, the people with hoarding disorders were the ones who experienced “not just right” feelings. In order to avert more anxiety or satiate their growing unease, they hold on to stuff. Dr. Tolin believes that hoarding bears more relation to autism and anxiety than to OCD, even though hoarding has long been considered a type of OCD.

“[Hoarding] isn’t a house problem,” Tolin was quoted as saying in Tara Parker-Pope’s blog in The New York Times. “It’s a person problem. The person needs to fundamentally change their behavior.”

How to Clear the Clutter

Again, I do not feel equipped to give advice here when I’m tripping over piles of books on the floor of my bedroom. But I like the behavioral tips offered by Dr. Gerald Nestadt, director of the Johns Hopkins OCD clinic, in an issue of The Johns Hopkins Depression & Anxiety Bulletin:

  1. Make immediate decisions about mail and newspapers. Go through mail and newspapers on the day you receive them and throw away unwanted materials immediately. Don’t leave anything to be decided on later.
  2. Think twice about what you allow into your home. Wait a couple of days after seeing a new item before you buy it. And when you do purchase something new, discard another item you own to make room for it.
  3. Set aside 15 minutes a day to declutter. Start small — with a table, perhaps, or a chair — rather than tackling the entire, overwhelming house at once. If you start to feel anxious, take a break and do some deep breathing or relaxation exercises.
  4. Dispose of anything you have not used in a year. That means old clothes, broken items, and craft projects you’ll never finish. Remind yourself that many items are easily replaceable if you need them later.
  5. Follow the OHIO rule: Only Handle It Once. If you pick something up, make a decision then and there about it, and either put it where it belongs or discard it. Don’t fall into the trap of moving things from one pile to another again and again.
  6. Ask for help if you can’t do it on your own. If you feel these strategies are impossible to carry out and you cannot cope with the problem on your own, seek out a mental health professional.

Join Project Hope & Beyond, a depression community.

PHOTO CREDIT: Cristie Guevara/Getty Images

Originally published on Sanity Break.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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7 Responses
  1. Janet T

    Thank you for this post. I had not heard of this book, but thanks to your review, I just ordered it from my library. I enjoyed your candor about clutter. I am decluttering now and I find it very difficult. 🙂

  2. Excellent piece! I have always thought to myself “Cluttered space – Cluttered mind” and I have to remind myself of this each week. I do see hoarding in my autistic patients and it seems to be a manifestation of their primary fascination with inanimate objects. For others I think anxiety and depression can be involved. Personally, my spirituality has helped me immensely in this area. As Stephen Covey would say emphatically “What’s important?”. I look at the saints and find that possessions and stuff was the the very last thing on their agenda! Francis of Assisi is a prime example.

  3. mary yo

    there is more to it. I have a wealthy friend who collects art obsessively bc she was poor once and is afraid not to be able to be surrounded by what she loves if they lose their oil-related economic status. People are tied to objects for emotional reasons that have to do with a past that was better or worse than the present, that reassures them that that past is gone forever, or that there is something better coming. There is duality in choosing what and if to discard something, a duality that they have in other areas in their lives from which they cannot get rid of…so much. good topic!

  4. Leslie B.

    Excellent article!! I LOVE its brevity. I own a book called something like The Tao of Clutter…but I never finished reading it, yet alone implementing it. Instead it became part of my clutter. Thanks for sharing! ????

  5. John Diehl

    Dear Therese,
    Thank you for another enlightening and enriching article. As usual, your article is very well written and chock full of valuable links and references to source material. Contrary to your apology for suggesting that you are less than qualified on the subject, you are entirely qualified and authentic.

  6. I hoarded following the death of my mother who died in front of me my landlord evicted me and sent my entire house to the tip, gentoo group Sunderland uk. So Iost every link to my past

  7. Janet Toot

    Thank you again for writing about the book: “Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century”. That book was an eyeopener and a visual wake-up call for me. “Living the Simple Life” by Elaine St. John (also from my public library) has also been helpful.