The connection between clutter and mental health is becoming clearer and clearer. Put simply, too much “stuff” causes stress.

In fact, research suggests clutter negatively affects your life in four distinct ways.

  1. It hurts your health. Your body produces more cortisol, the hormone that makes you feel stressed, when you have a lot of junk lying around. You are also more likely to eat poorly. Furthermore, dust accumulation can cause respiratory issues, and piles of stuff can be safety hazards.
  2. It breaks your heart. A messy house can lead to messy relationships and marital disputes. People who live with clutter are less likely to host guests. Perhaps worst of all, it can affect your children’s happiness and ability to make friends.
  3. It impacts your career. A cluttered workspace is a distracting workspace. In some cases, a messy desk could cost you a promotion. In extreme instances, people who struggle with hoarding at home even miss work more often than their clutter-free counterparts.
  4. It drains your bank account. Misplaced bills are hard to pay. Moreover, acquiring too much stuff costs money, and the habit can lead to poor money management or unmanageable debt.

For people in recovery, the effects of clutter on mental health can be even more problematic. Clutter can trigger anxiety and cause depression, both of which are risk factors for relapse. Furthermore, both hoarding and substance use disorders are addictive in nature. For people with co-occuring disorders, it can be difficult to control one habit while the other is still a problem.

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But there’s good news. For those recovering from substance use disorders, the positive impact of decluttering can be even more pronounced. Here’s how you can take advantage of the mental health boost an organized, mess-free environment has to offer.

Start Small

The process of decluttering is not as simple as just “throwing things away.” Most of us have trouble getting rid of items we’ve acquired, even if we don’t like them. According to psychology experts, it is especially hard for people to declutter possessions with sentimental value, items we paid a lot of money for, and things that we think could be useful sometime in the future.

The thoughts, feelings, and emotions associated with decluttering are part of the reason people put it off. However, you can help reduce the sense of overwhelm by starting small.

  • Take it one space at a time. Start with a single room, a single closet, or even a single item. Sort items into three separate piles to keep, donate, and throw away. Ask yourself if the item is currently being used or if it currently brings you joy. If the answer is yes, it stays. If the answer is anything else, it goes.
  • Start with your socks. If your sock drawer isn’t in need of culling, pick something else without a lot of sentimental value to begin your decluttering efforts. Housewares, beauty products, or linens are other good options. The point is, get yourself comfortable letting easy things go before you move on to the more emotional items.
  • Rent a storage unit. Some people are paralyzed by the fear that as soon as they get rid of an item, they will need it. If that’s the case, consider renting a short-term storage unit to use as an interim space for belongings you are hesitant to see go. Set a time period of one to three months during which you can retrieve any item you truly need. At the end of that period, donate the entire contents of the unit without going through everything again.

Stop Shopping

While shopping provides a mental boost on its own, it’s short-lived. This is especially true if you already have problems with clutter or finances. Plus, the easiest way to lessen the amount of stuff you own is to stop buying it in the first place. Sure, it’s tempting to pick up a little something for ourselves each time we’re out. Maybe it’s a home decor item that’s the perfect color or a pair of jeans that fits just right, or maybe it’s something that seems like too good of a deal to pass up. But if it’s going to cause you stress once you get it home, is it really worth it?

When it comes to shopping less often, you can immediately nix non-essentials, like decorative and duplicate items. Then, you can move on to areas of your life where you already own too much. For many of us, that means changing some of our buying habits. You can start with a few practices that are easy to follow.

  • Quit buying books. Dust off your library card, and pay your overdue fines. Your local library has almost as good a selection as online retailers, and will commonly order books upon request. In most cases, your library membership is free and comes with access to online and audio versions of books as well. For uncommon titles or new releases with long waitlists, consider buying and reading digital copies.
  • Consider clothes rental. How many items in your closet have only been worn once or twice? How about shoes, belts, and jewelry? When you need a dress for a special event or a new mini wardrobe for a weekend getaway, try renting pieces. You can wear stylish, high-end clothes for a fraction of the price of buying them. Then, when you’re done with them, instead of taking up space in your closet and your mind, you can send them back.
  • Tame the toys. The average 10-year-old owns 238 toys but only plays with 12 daily. Instead of buying new toys, rotate them. Packing some toys away and then bringing them out again makes them feel like new every few months. That said, this tip isn’t just for people with kids. From board games to hobby supplies to gadgets, most adults have an overflowing “toy chest,” too.

Stay Strong

Though the benefits of decluttering are many, the task itself is not easy. You will likely feel overwhelmed in the beginning and at different times throughout the process. That’s OK. Be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling, and go at a pace that is comfortable for you.

To make the most out of decluttering and give yourself a better chance of following through, follow these tips:

  • Take breaks often. Let yourself get distracted every once in a while. Look through old photographs or souvenirs and reminisce. Some items will conjure up emotions from your past or even your present. It’s important to feel those instead of avoid them.
  • Join an online support group. Even if your ultimate goal is not minimalism, there are people who have been through this process whose shared experiences may help you. Furthermore, many of these folks can provide tips, tricks, advice and encouragement during the process.
  • If you feel triggered, stop. If you find a substance or piece of paraphernalia that could be harmful, go to a safe place. Call a friend, family member, or sponsor to talk you through what you’re feeling.

Finally, give yourself grace. Decluttering is supposed to make you feel good, so be kind to yourself. Remember, the ultimate goal is to reduce your stress levels and, as a result, the likelihood of falling back into addiction. By reducing the amount of stuff you have to care for, pay for, and keep up with, you will gain more time, money, and energy to put toward your well-being and continued recovery.