Blog post

Can decluttering the space around you help declutter your mind?

With people leading busier lives than ever, Dr Jane Montague, Head of Psychology, discusses how to improve your mental wellbeing and declutter your busy mind.

By Dr Jane Montague - 15 June 2017

How does the brain respond to being surrounded by clutter?

It depends what we mean by clutter and what purpose this serves for the individual. What one person considers clutter might be another person’s prized possessions. If unintentional, for example, the individual is surrounded by other people’s clutter, it can have detrimental effects – it impacts on and adds to the ‘busy-ness’ of life.

Being surrounded by clutter not of your own making can affect your concentration. Constantly being surrounded by mess can be a stimulus that makes you feel out of control and unsettled.

There is research suggesting that those people who find it difficult to declutter have different patterns of brain activity when faced with making decisions about their possessions.

However, it might be that the clutter means something different for the individual and might represent some form of security or comfort for them. This is particularly the case when looking at clutter in relation to mental health.

Are there links with anxiety and other mental health issues and clutter?

Research in the area of compulsive hoarding demonstrates a distinct correlation between our mental health and our hoarding behaviours. However, there is a fine line between collecting and hoarding and the correlation is difficult to tease apart, for example, is it hoarding and clutter that affects mental health or vice versa? Similarly, when does ‘collecting’ tip over into being ‘hoarding’?

People’s ability to get rid of possessions when they no longer have a use for them differs greatly. We all have some attachment to our possessions, but this can lead to living in unhealthy environments or might signal something deeper such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). We are living in a time when we are encouraged to buy constantly – a consumerist society – however, for some people this can lead to different types of stress, for example, not being able to keep up with developments in particular areas or not being able to afford the latest labelled item. Equally it can mean that we acquire items that are little used or that we don’t feel able to get rid of, therefore continually building up our body of ‘stuff’.

What effects does limiting the number of possessions you own have on your mind?

If people are restricted from having personal possessions around them (e.g. in prison, at work, etc.) then this can have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing, particularly in the loss of their self-identity, which is often tied to certain possessions. There’s a lot of social psychological work in this area. Some research suggests that having personal items in your office space will ensure you feel more job satisfaction and your well-being at work will be enhanced, thus having a positive effect on your mental health.

However, if you choose to limit the number of personal possessions you have yourself then this has a different effect. There is evidence to demonstrate that people who limit the number of possessions they have feel freer and less restricted – they have a sense of freedom linked to being able to pack up and move around easily. The difference is linked to whether you make the choice to limit your possessions yourself – if you are able to make that choice then it could also be beneficial for your wellbeing.

Can minimalism in the home and in your life help those suffering from stress, anxiety or other mental health issues?

Yes, as long as the reasons stated above are taken into account. The relationship between possessions, connection to others, self-identity and mental health is extremely complex so there are occasions where no amount of decluttering will address the mental health issue that might accompany the acquisition of possessions. Indeed, as stated above, there is evidence to show that in some cases there is an emotional need for having your personal possessions around you.

Interestingly, the move to minimalism also doesn’t necessarily mean that you get rid of things. There is a growing trend for items to be put into storage facilities, often with the intention of making lasting decisions about them later. There are several different psychological approaches to exploring the behaviours that lead people to acquire and store their possessions, for example, their emotional attachment to them, the information processing deficits mentioned above, behavioural avoidance of actually discarding objects and, for some, erroneous beliefs about the nature of their possessions (such as is seen in OCD).

Do you think there’s merit in hiring a professional declutterer, or is this a gimmick?

For some people this might well be useful and there’s a huge business that focuses in on this area. For example, on TV there are people such as Gok Wan, who helps people declutter their wardrobes, or Ann Maurice in terms of houses. With the advent of these programmes, a new industry has been set up and the plethora of media articles, TV programmes and, of course, the book from Marie Kondo; this is a growing trend.

Given the difficulties that some people have in actually getting rid of unwanted items, evidenced through the growth of use of storage units, actually having someone professional to help you deal with items that are no longer required might well be an easier and more efficient way of dealing with this issue.

Sometimes it is difficult to take a step back to see what you might keep or get rid of, especially as our possessions can have great emotional value to us, connecting us to others, reminding us of loved ones and so on. Someone with an objective view might just be what is needed. However, there’s a difference in this decluttering for a purpose, and the hoarding behaviours that some people with mental health issues will display so there is definitely not a ‘one size fits all’ possibility in this area.

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About the author

Dr Jane Montague

Dr Jane Montague
Head of Psychology

Jane is Head of Psychology within the School of Human Sciences. Her teaching and research interests are based within critical approaches to social psychology, particularly in relation to gender, identity and the use of qualitative methods. She currently teaches both undergraduate and postgraduate students and supervises a number of PhD students.

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