The Negative Effects Clutter Has on Your Mental Health

The science connecting clutter and your brain

Jerren Gan
Dec 11, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

Clutter is common. Be it mental clutter or physical clutter, it is nearly impossible for anyone to completely avoid facing clutter their whole lives. And in the midst of leading our busy lifestyles, clutter inevitably forms.

However, when pushing for a minimalist lifestyle, many have argued that a cluttered space leads to a cluttered mental state, leading to bad mental health. As they begin to claim that clutter overwhelms our mental state and continually saps our energy, I began to wonder if clutter really did affect our mental state that much.

Having clutter stresses you out

According to the book “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors” published by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families (CELF), experts have found that a higher density of household objects in a home leads to a higher cortisol level in female homeowners. As an increase in the release of cortisol is associated with higher stress levels, the finding suggests that females actually suffer from additional stress when living amongst clutter.

However, this doesn’t mean that males are free from the stressful effects of clutter as well. When we are surrounded by clutter, it is difficult for us to truly relax and destress. With living conditions that are physically cluttered, emotions like frustration and annoyance can often intensify the stress one feels. Furthermore, in a family, the increased stress felt by female members can often affect the stress level of the entire family (e.g. becoming stressed when your loved ones are stressed or conflict arising because of the difference in opinion about clutter).

You have limited attention to spare

A common argument against clutter is that it forces one to become unfocused. But what is focus?

Focus is the act of directing one’s attention towards a particular action or activity. This means that to be unfocused, one would have to be unable to continue paying attention. With this in mind, it seems that for something to cause one to lose focus, it will either have to reduce your attention span or be distracting enough to divert your attention from the task at hand.

It turns out that clutter does both. As mentioned, having clutter increases the stress one feels. And research has shown that acute stress actually leads to a shorter attention span. Furthermore, another study by the Princeton Neuroscience Institute found that when multiple stimuli are present in one’s visual field at the same time, one faces an increased probability of becoming distracted. The finding that visual clutter decreases one attention is also confirmed in this study that suggests that cluttered environments increase the number of “erroneous perceptual decisions”.

This means that not only does clutter increase your stress levels, clutter actually reduces your productivity, causing you to become more easily distracted. And in the long run, being unproductive all day can also increase your stress level, putting you into a negative feedback loop of stress and unproductivity.

An increase in impulse spending

Apart from suggesting that clutter reduces your productivity, the finding that cluttered environments increase the number of “erroneous perceptual decisions” also suggests that clutter is related to bad decisions.

And when “retail therapy” and “stress shopping” is the method many use to destress, poor decision making just means that you’d be more likely to buy things that you don’t really need. To make things even worse, these things that you don’t really need will eventually end up adding on to the clutter as well.

Furthermore, with clutter, it is often difficult to find the things that you need. When you begin to feel stressed out and frustrated during your search for that one screwdriver or that extra remote you stashed somewhere, you might find yourself electing to buy a new one instead. And after using that new screwdriver once, it is likely to end up hidden in the pile of clutter, never to show itself again.

By simply reducing clutter, you get to reduce the amount of money that you spend unnecessarily. And when money and finances remain as one of the top sources of stress across the different age groups, reducing unnecessary spending can help boost your mental health significantly.

How to get rid of clutter

However, getting rid of clutter might be a terribly difficult undertaking for some. Sometimes, we hold on to things because of their sentimental value. With the memories they contain, getting rid of these little reminders of the past is painful.

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that when a possession is linked to one’s personal identity, getting rid of this item would lead to strong negative responses. As such, when you attempt to get rid of objects that you see as an important possession, the feelings of distress and grief is expected.

However, this makes getting rid of clutter difficult. Yet, with science already suggesting a relation between clutter and bad mental health, getting rid of clutter should be on the top of everyone’s to-do list.

Of course, I’m not telling you to simply get rid of every prized possession you have. Keep the things that you use frequently. However, for the sentimental possessions that are rarely used, you can try creating digital footprints that remind you of their value before getting rid of the item. Here’s what I mean:

Say you’ve been keeping this extra vase (that you have no need for) because they were gifted to you by a loved one. In order to help you get rid of it without forgetting its value, you can take pictures of it and keep the images in a digital folder, complete with notes about the person (an event) related to the item. That way, you’d find it easier to donate/sell (or even throw) the vase away without feeling like you’re losing a piece of memory.

For those who are not as comfortable with digitizing everything, you can also try printing the photos out and keeping them in scrapbooks or photobooks. By keeping small reminders of what the items mean to you, getting rid of them (or using them instead of keeping them as pristine display sets) becomes infinitely easier.

And for other objects like old t-shirts, upcycling them and creating new objects (like a bag or a quilt) can give new meaning to the objects, allowing them to become useful while reducing the clutter in your home.

Of course, even with photos, getting rid of clutter is still difficult. However, with the science pointing towards a correlation between clutter and bad mental health, clearing up the clutter will definitely be worth all the effort.


Déjà you, but better.

Thanks to Jon Hawkins

Sign up for Wholistique Digest

By Wholistique

A weekly Round-Up of the best stories published on Wholistique. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Jerren Gan

Written by

| Freelance writer • Blogger • Poet | Loves writing about the environment, mental health and the beauty of language • used to write movie and book reviews


Our goal is to increase health and wellness awareness , to promote healthy lifestyle behavior through well-researched content. We aim to educate and inform, as well as to raise debate and reflection. Check us out:

Jerren Gan

Written by

| Freelance writer • Blogger • Poet | Loves writing about the environment, mental health and the beauty of language • used to write movie and book reviews


Our goal is to increase health and wellness awareness , to promote healthy lifestyle behavior through well-researched content. We aim to educate and inform, as well as to raise debate and reflection. Check us out:

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store