From Chaos To Calm: NI Experts Give Top Tips For Conquering Clutter For Improved Mental Health

Clutter can accumulate in our homes, daily household tasks can become neglected and disorder can be present for so many reasons, or it can be the result of a combination of factors that will be personal to each individual or household.

Living daily in a stressful environment can have a negative impact on our lives, how we feel, think and act. It can be draining of our energy, time, money, relationships, work-life balance as well as draining on our mental health. To improve our mental health and overall wellbeing it is important to regain control of what for many can become a vicious cycle.

On the back of Mental Health Awareness Week (May 15-21) founder, counsellor, facilitator and creative mind behind Mindful Messages and Mind Yerself, Kiri McLaughlin along with professional declutterer and organiser Catherine Hamilton-Cooper shed light on the profound impact clutter can have on our mental well-being. 

5 factors why clutter and disorder can be present in a home

The pair suggest that there are five broad impacting factors on why clutter and disorder can be present within our homes vast, which may be personal to an individual or household, but often interlinked.

1. Physical factors 

There are many physical factors that can contribute to clutter and disorder in a home. 

If we are not physically able to maintain our home due to any reason e.g. disability or injury this can create problems and hazards. 

In these cases, support and adjustments should be considered to better able the homeowner to maintain their home.

2. Mental health & psychological factors 

Mental health conditions are prevalent and complex and can be contributing factors towards difficulty keeping our homes in order. 

Studies have shown that mental health problems are one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide, with around 1 in 6 adults in the UK having experienced a common mental disorder, with mixed anxiety and depression being the most common mental disorder affecting 7.8% of people.

Mental Health Disorders such as Anxiety and Depression have a huge impact on how we think, behave and feel physically, often preventing us from doing things, contributing to our communities or maintaining relationships. 

Someone experiencing depression who struggles to get out of bed every day or attend to their basic needs might struggle to gather the motivation to look after their home or someone living with an Anxiety Disorder, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may believe that by letting go of an item something bad will happen. Suddenly, they are surrounded by possessions their condition prevents them from getting rid of. 

Mental health problems and disorders impact how we think, which can change how we perceive and feel about our possessions, making it more difficult to stay on top of our homes. 

People may have: 

  • Certain beliefs about their belongings – seeing their belongings as an extension of themselves, unhelpful thinking that if they let go of a physical item they will lose the memory, lose their identity, lose a part of their past or lose money
  • Fear of dealing with trauma linked to an item or items
  • Perfectionist personalities –  fear of making a mistake, so no progress is made 
  • Difficulty making decisions – unclear thinking, fear led decision making 
  • Difficulty discarding – perceived need to keep an item due to seeing its usefulness, beauty, or a new potential way to reuse or repurpose it etc. 
  • Excessive guilt about letting go – if the item was a gift, feeling of being wasteful, the feeling of being ungrateful and scared of causing pain to others by letting go of an item.

Executive functioning (the ‘management system’ of the brain which controls memory and cognitive flexibility) difficulties can also have an impact on how an individual manages their home. 

People with executive dysfunction and/or ADHD commonly find difficulty in starting and finishing tasks and can become easily distracted, often leaving multiple unfinished jobs, experiencing difficulty following a multiple step process and balancing tasks, and can experience difficulty with time management.

3. Situational factors 

A significant life change is enough sometimes to throw our whole routine into disarray. One day we have a smooth running house, and in the blink of an eye we are surrounded by unfinished tasks and a backlog of household chores and we don’t know which way to turn. 

Or it may have been gradually built up over a prolonged period of time due to additional responsibilities for example. 

Significant life changes could include moving home, divorce, a new arrival, older children moving out, bereavement, and caring responsibilities to name only a few.

4. Unlearned skills factors 

We can only do what we have the skills to do, whether we have been taught or learnt ourselves. 

Life skills like decluttering, organising and cleaning your home were skills that most were not taught in school, and therefore if not learnt at home may struggle to know what to do and how to do it.

5. Over acquiring factors 

The more we own, the more we have to manage and maintain. Therefore, if we accumulate too many belongings and are not processing them to declutter regularly, we can easily end up in a situation of overwhelm. 

We accumulate items in many ways from receiving gifts, freebies, post, inherited items and our own purchasing of essential and non-essential items. 

An over-accumulation problem can occur if we over buy excessively and/or compulsively buy more than we actually need. 

So how can you deal with the physiological and psychological impact of clutter?

As a counsellor, Kiri McLaughlin has a deep understanding of the physiological and psychological impact of clutter on people’s lives.

“The negative impact clutter and disorder within our homes can have on our mental health and wellbeing, and how decluttering & maintaining our home can therefore improve our mental health and reduce anxiety,”

“You might feel it, stuff starts to creep in, things seem disorganised, your home feels crammed and cramped and a little suffocating. Your safe space no longer feels safe. Suddenly we feel overwhelmed, we don’t know what to do and where to start and we’re not sure how we’re going to cope.” 

Studies confirm that constant visual representations of disorganisation impact our cognitive functions, our brain feels overloaded and as such clutter reduces our ability to focus as well as our memory. If we live in a home full of clutter our brain finds it hard to read the emotional state of people and characters in movies. 

“Living in an environment with chronic clutter and disorganisation increases the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) released in our bodies, which can increase physical and mental illnesses. Essentially, clutter and disorder put us into a state of stress.

“Stress is a mental health problem that affects how we think, feel, behave and how we feel physically. If we are in a state of constant stress from the clutter in our homes as well as juggling the stresses we have going on elsewhere we can become overwhelmed and feel we’re unable to deal with our problems.”

Clutter & Disorder decreases motivation and increases procrastination. If something is difficult to find we are unlikely to gather the motivation to find it. 

Another impact clutter has on people’s lives may be increased snacking. A kitchen with countertops and cupboards that are cluttered increases a person’s snacking habits. If our home is cluttered and it’s difficult to cook a meal or find the right utensils we will reach for easy to consume foods. This might look like cupboard snacks, microwave meals or take away foods. 

There are lots of reasons why someone might acquire clutter, or feel like they have lost a sense of control over their homes. When your clutter has been dealt with, you can then look forward to your home being comfortable, once more. If you really want to reap the benefits, why not hire a luxury interior designer to transform your property?

Kiri’s mindfulness exercise 

Kiri invites people to complete a short personal practice if it feels comfortable. It is important to note that this personal practice may not be suitable for everyone and people should take care and be gentle as they move through these thoughts.

“Close your eyes or rest your gaze for a moment. Concentrate on your breathing. Taking a few deep conscious breaths before returning to a natural breath. 

“As you breathe I want you to think about when your home stopped feeling like it brought comfort and peace. Ask yourself: 

“What was going on for me at that time? 

“What was happening in my life? 

“Write down what comes up for you, consider how it makes you feel. Approach the feelings that come up without judgement – we are simply acknowledging them.

“At the end of the practice, I would encourage you to explore whether these thoughts and feelings are something you may need help working through.”

If you find you need support please seek advice from the following sources:

Call Samaritans 24/7 helpline on 116 123, call SANEline(4pm – 10pm) on 0300 304 7000 or text SHOUT to 85258.

“Taking control of the clutter and disorder can therefore have a beneficial impact on both our mental and physical health.”

“Go gentle with yourself on your journey of decluttering, take your time and celebrate wins even if they feel small.

“Write down your ‘done’ list – celebrate what you have achieved and acknowledge it in writing. Ask yourself: ‘How did it feel to let that thing go?’, ‘how will my life look different without that thing?’ ‘How will letting that thing go benefit me and my home?’ 

“The kindest and bravest thing we can do is ask for help when things are more than we have capacity for. We would absolutely encourage you to seek help as early as possible as this will have a greater impact on recovery.”

By following some of the tips from Catherine below and gently decluttering and organising your home you can increase your ability to focus, your ability to process information, your productivity, your sense of control and gain a sense of accomplishment.

Catherine’s tips on decluttering

As a professional organiser and declutterer, Catherine has years of experience helping people clear clutter and organise their homes.

“If you are unsure of where to start with decluttering, I suggest addressing any area that is a health and safety hazard as a priority. Following that a good place to start is an area where you will achieve a quick win, so start easy and definitely don’t start with sentimental items.”

“Visualise what you would like the area you are going to work on to look like, it’s good to have a picture in your mind of what you are aiming for. Keep this realistic.” 

Another tip is to start at a time of the day when your energy levels are highest. You want to be ready to make great progress, so feeling fresh and energised will set you off to a good start, as well as being prepared. Get boxes or bags ready in advance and label them, bin, recycle, donate, sell (if you want to sell items) and relocate. 

“Set yourself small and achievable tasks to avoid overwhelm. You can always build on this, but set yourself tasks that you will succeed at!”

When decluttering, group like-for-like items together as much as possible. You need to see how many of each similar item you have. 

Work through each item and focus on what items you want to keep. Helpful questions to ask yourself when deciding on what to keep are: 

  • Do I ACTUALLY use this? 
  • Do I REALLY need this? 
  • Do I REALLY love this? 
  • Is this a duplicate?
  • Do I have space to store this? 

“Remember the more items you own, the more you have to store and manage. Don’t let your items own you.

“Have fun, play music and enjoy the process! Set a timer for a manageable period of time, this can help with focus and also as a reminder when to take a break. It’s important to wrap up a decluttering session when you still have energy. Don’t work until you are really tired and exhausted.”

Always allow yourself time at the end to tidy, take the ‘Relocate’ items to their home, and also deal with the bags of your unwanted items. Organise in advance to get your waste, recycling and donations out of your home either immediately or as soon as possible to avoid letting them remain as clutter in your home. 

“At the end of a session, set a date with yourself for when you will continue decluttering, it doesn’t have to be done in a day!” 

Catherine’s tips on organising

It is important to remember that decluttering comes before organising. 

“Never organise what you can declutter. Don’t buy any extra storage until you have completely decluttered first. A mistake a lot of people make is to rush out and buy more storage as a fix for their clutter problem. This is not fixing the problem, it is simply storing it and is a waste of your money too.” 

After you have decluttered, use the storage you already have, and you may be pleasantly surprised that you don’t need to buy any extra storage. 

Sometimes it’s easier to determine the purpose for each room before you start. Plan a ‘home’ for items based on how you live and would naturally go to look for an item to make life as easy as possible. 

As a general rule, try to create zones where you can keep similar items together, similarly containing smaller items will help in keeping them tidy. Feel free to get creative with how you utilise all your space and ensure you can see all your items clearly and try to avoid losing sight of your possessions at the back of cupboards, or in overfilled drawers. 

A simple way to help stay organised is labelling categories where necessary. Try to store vertically where possible and aim to create systems that suit you, and are maintainable. 

You can always reassess to see if things work for you, don’t worry about perfection because getting started is more important! 

If you would like connect with Kiri McLaughlin, you can do so on her Facebook or on her website:

If you would like to connect with Catherine, check out her Facebook or her website:

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