Welcome to our cluttered lives. It’s the garage you never organized. The dishes you’ll wash “tomorrow.” The stacks of unread mail that might contain your latest car payment. It’s mess, and yes, it can be causing you real, tangible stress.
“Eventually, everyone feels stress related to our habitual lack of tidiness and order,” says Michael Reina, a marriage and family therapist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “Whatever level of organization you’re willing to tolerate, disorder in your home, car or office can start to make you wonder how you got so off track. It can even make you wonder if you have a disorder.”
Mess causes stress in a number of ways:
- The feeling of being “out of control” because you can’t find things you’re looking for
- Conflict with loved ones because your ideas of order and cleanliness may not match
- A reflection of an unrelated disharmony within, one that you may not want to see
- The physical effects of an unclean environment, and how it impacts your health
- Financial loss, in opportunities or obligations being “buried” in disorganization
A person’s tidiness has a lot to do with how they were brought up. For the most part, we grew up being told to clean our rooms. But did we learn how to manage the stress on a regular, daily basis? When a messy environment starts to overwhelm us, we may try managing that anxiety with a variety of defense mechanisms — such as denying the mess is there, or projecting the clutter onto others.
To keep “mess stress” at bay, Reina suggests taking the following six active steps to organize the environment around you.
- Identify your goal to declutter early in the morning, when your head is most clear.
- Create a mental image of what it would be like to live without the mess you see.
- Focus on one category at a time, such as picking up and putting away clothes.
- Sort objects by how often you use them, and throw out what you don’t need.
- Hold objects you’d like to keep, and ask yourself if they still bring you joy. If not, let them go.
- Find ways to make the job fun, like giving yourself small milestones and rewards.
“It’s important to learn ways to relate your immediate environment to your inner world,” says Reina. Take note of how organization makes you feel, and let it inspire you to make cleanliness a part of your everyday.
So what if your idea of “clean” varies from that of your partner or family members? Start by agreeing that there is a solution to the problem. Reinforce the benefits of having a clear space. Then, work together to organize your shared environment in a way that works for everyone. “Cleaning up one’s living environment goes a long way toward healing interpersonal distress,” says Reina.
If you suspect that a need for cleanliness, or lack thereof, crosses a line, contact your primary care physician to discuss next steps. Conditions like hoarding or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are serious, yet treatable.
However, Reina cautions against self-diagnosis. “In general, the stress that mess causes is common, and not a disorder,” he says. “Know that you can learn ways to find balance. And once you get there, you may like yourself a little bit more — and find some much-needed serenity in your ordered life.”