Why Clutter and Mess Overwhelm Us

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sight of clutter and mess in your home? Have you walked in the door only to feel overloaded by scattered papers, unwashed dishes, and clothes in disarray? Maybe you’ve even had arguments because it bothers you more than it bothers your partner or housemates. You’re not alone.

Many people report that a messy house can trigger feelings of stress and anxiety. So why do clutter and chaos make some of us feel so overwhelmed? Here’s what the research says – and what you can do about it.

The Cognitive Overload

When we’re surrounded by distractions, our brains essentially become battlegrounds for attention. Everything competes for our focus. But the brain prefers order and “singletasking” over multitasking. Order helps reduce the competition for our attention and mental load.

While some people might be better than others at ignoring distractions, distractable environments can overload our cognitive capabilities and memory. Clutter, disorder, and mess can affect more than just our cognitive resources. They’re also linked to our eating, productivity, mental health, parenting decisions, and even our willingness to donate money.

Gender Differences

Research suggests that the detrimental effects of mess and clutter may be more pronounced in women than in men. One study found that women living in cluttered and stressful homes had higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and heightened depression symptoms. In contrast, men seemed largely unaffected by the state of their home environments.

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It’s theorized that women may feel a greater responsibility for maintaining the home and that the social aspect of the study may have induced more fear of judgment among women than men.

Underlying Mental Health Conditions

Significant clutter problems can be linked to underlying mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding disorder, major depressive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and anxiety disorders. The question arises: which came first? For some, clutter is the source of anxiety and distress; for others, poor mental health is the source of disorganization and clutter.

Embracing Imperfection

It’s important to remember that clutter isn’t all bad, and we shouldn’t aim for perfection. Disorganized spaces can result in increased creativity and elicit fresh insights. Living in constant disorder isn’t productive, but striving for perfectionism in cleanliness can also be counterproductive.

Managing Clutter

If mess makes you anxious, there are strategies you can try. One approach is to reduce clutter through dedicated decluttering sessions. You can also try micro-tidying by committing just five minutes to clear one small space. Communicating with household members about how the mess affects your mental health and establishing boundaries can also help manage clutter.

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Developing a self-compassionate mindset and reminding yourself that mess doesn’t define your worth can also alleviate stress. If clutter, perfectionism, or anxiety become unmanageable, consider seeking help from a psychologist to cultivate a life driven by your values.


Clutter and mess have a profound impact on mental well-being, productivity, and our choices. Understanding why clutter affects you can empower you to take control of your mindset, living spaces, and, in turn, your life.