Clutter and Depression

Does clutter cause depression? Does depression cause clutter? At any given moment during a high-clutter period in my house, I could argue the validity of both. Clutter has a special way of inspiring stress and frustration, which, more often than not, abets the inability to combat the mess. It becomes circular–which came first, the chicken or the egg? In the end, it seems to snowball into a tangled mess of tension and depression and it’s hard to tell what’s causing what.

Chronic disorganization is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it a generally specified symptom of depression–but ask just about anyone who suffers from clutter if they feel there is some type of link, and I bet 99 percent will say yes.

According to an article in The New York Times, excessive clutter and disorganization are often symptoms of a bigger health problem. People who have suffered an emotional trauma or a brain injury often find housecleaning an insurmountable task. Attention deficit disorder, depression, chronic pain and grief can prevent people from getting organized or lead to a buildup of clutter. At its most extreme, chronic disorganization is called hoarding, a condition many experts believe is a mental illness in its own right, although psychiatrists have yet to formally recognize it.

Compulsive hoarding is defined, in part, by clutter that so overtakes living, dining and sleeping spaces that it harms the person’s quality of life. A compulsive hoarder finds it impossible, even painful, to part with possessions. It’s not clear how many people suffer from compulsive hoarding, but estimates start at about 1.5 million Americans, according to The Times.

The Link Between Clutter and Depression?
No formal studies have been done on the link between clutter and depression, but when I look at the symptoms of depression–this list from the National Institute of Mental Health–I see direct cause and affect relationships. Here are depression symptoms, followed be clutter effects.

• Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions: Causes difficulty in sorting, organizing and prioritizing.
• Fatigue and decreased energy: Maintaining order takes energy, it’s as simple as that.
• Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness: Hard to find the desire or wherewithal to conquer a mess when feeling helpless.
• Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping: Again, maintaining order takes energy.
• Irritability, restlessness: It’s nearly impossible to tackle a tedious sorting project when irritable and restless.
• Overeating or appetite loss: Both weight gain or hunger-induced lethargy are not conducive to cleaning.
• Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment: Pain makes you want to lay down, not sit at a desk and go through a mountain of paper.
• Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings: The bottom line, it takes enthusiasm and determination to battle clutter.

I’m not suggesting that clutter be officially added to the list of symptoms for depression (I also understand that there is a broad range of types of depression)–but looking at the ways in which symptoms of depression can impact the potential to clutter, I don’t know how people suffering from depression can avoid disorganization.

Clutter and Your Health
Most experts agree that getting organized is good for your health. “People don’t eat well because their kitchen isn’t functional, and they don’t sleep well because their beds are piled with stuff,” noted Lynne Johnson, a professional organizer from Quincy, Mass., who is president of the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization. “I don’t see chronic disorganization ever becoming a medical diagnosis, but it is a contributing factor to noncompliance to taking meds and keeping appointments and being able to do exercise and eat well and all those things that so contribute to having a healthy life.”

Clutter and disorganization impair productivity and are time-consuming–often resulting in decreased feelings of well-being. Even on the simplest levels. For instance, I know that on the mornings when we can’t find my daughter’s specific pair of Mary-Janes required for the day, we will spend too long hunting, be late leaving for school, and what should have been a leisurely look-at-that-cute-fuzzy-squirrel walk turns into a come-on-come-on-zippity-do-dah-we’re-going-to-be-late walk. That’s not fun, and I know that because I was sloppy with the shoes, I lost out on a nice experience with my kids. The sheer stress of a cluttered life means we may miss deadlines, work longer hours, and lose important stuff.

One last tidbit from The New York Times article: Many experts say that too often people approach clutter and disorganization as a space problem that can be solved by acquiring bins and organizers. Measures like these “are based on the concept that this is a house problem,” said David F. Tolin, director of the anxiety disorders center at the Institute of Living in Hartford and an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Yale. “It isn’t a house problem,” he went on. “It’s a person problem. The person needs to fundamentally change their behavior.”


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