Is Being Tidy Actually Good For Your Health?
The Debrief: If you're feeling stressed or overwhelmed but you're not sure why, the answer could be in the pile of clothes on your floor.
Take a look at interior inspiration on Instagram or Pinterest and you’ll spot a general theme: picturesque, scandi-inspired, minimalist rooms. They’re bright and impressive. There’s no clutter; the room is accessorised with brushed metal items, the odd rug and perhaps a couple of hardback photography books. Minimalism is in – even in the way we’re dressing. Hare-brained clutter is out.
You need only to consider the success of Marie Kondo’s book last year, The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up, to know that, for one reason or another, people are interested in clearing their homes. A book which, in all honesty, I found to be quite extreme when I tried it out, although I fully appreciate the sentiment.
But is there more to tidy spaces than just aesthetics? Many people believe there is. Francine Jay, minimalist and author of The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Guide to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify, is one of them. ‘Having so many things around us vying for our attention and the pressure of having to clean it, maintain it and organise it makes us stressed,' Francine explains. ‘If our lives are a little more streamlined we tend to be more relaxed people and I think that carries over into other parts of our lives as well.’ This idea of your living space affecting your health has been backed up by research too. One particular study found that women who describe their home as ‘cluttered’ or full of ‘unfinished projects’ had higher levels of cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress and associated with depression and poor coping skills. They also had increased depressed mood over the course of the day. 'If you feel stressed out, or overwhelmed or just uncomfortable with the way things are in your life, I say try a little decluttering because sometimes just making some space in our lives brings us a lot of serenity.’ says Francine.
Studies have shown just how the state of your living environment can feed into areas of your life. One found that it can make you sleep worse, whilst another found how the type of room you’re in can affect the food you choose to eat: those in a tidy room were more likely to pick an apple over a chocolate bar.
It’s not surprising that there’s truth in the sentiment that ‘a tidy room is a tidy mind’ – we’re bombarded with a plethora of images and sounds and colours and smells and people all day everyday (apart from, I guess, when we sleep), so it seems wise to want to experience serenity from our surroundings, rather than more of this. Our focus isn’t limitless, so there’s only so much we can take in; a 2011 study found that clutter impairs our ability to focus and process information, because we can only take in so much, so reducing clutter and mess will help incrrease our focus and productivity. The ancient art of Feng shui, the act of balancing energy in spaces, firmly believes clutter can block the flow of energy.
Francine believes that decluttering helps a person to set boundaries. ‘There’s this sense of restraint that you bring into your life, kind of a sense of discipline. You get used to this sense of restraint that spills into your life like “I’ll only have one glass of wine”. I think it helps in a health sense in that way because it’s easy to take control of your stuff, and you can work up to those bigger issues.’ Therefore taking control of your environment can be a starting point in gaining control in other areas of your life. It might be that once you tackle your messy bedroom, you’ll feel strong enough to have that chat with your boss which you’ve been putting off for months.
The thing is, you can tidy your belongings as much as you want, but the key is to actually have less. ‘If you’re trying to constantly tidy and organise and put away, you still have the stress on you to deal with all that stuff,’ Francine explained. ‘It’s still an activity that you have to devote time and attention and energy to, whereas if you didn’t have as much stuff, you remove that entire responsibility from your life.’ And the chances are you have far too much stuff anyway; clothes you haven’t even taken the tags off of, books you’ve never opened, wires that have no home. If you feel like decluttering, Francine recommends starting small; like with that draw full of crap. Also, ask yourself what you want to keep rather than what you want to throw away; it’ll make the process easier. Take it slowly, start small and take it one step at a time because trying to clear out your entire room in one day is only going to serve to stress you out and overwhelm you. It’s not a race. ‘Do a little bit each day and integrate it into your life slowly so it becomes a natural part of your life rather than a one-time event that to me seems like it would be kind of stressful,’ Francine recommends. ‘The more rounds of decluttering you do, the more you get rid of each time. It’s building up that confidence to do it and realising that you’re probably not going to miss this stuff.’
Whilst throwing stuff away can be cathartic, there are extremes when it comes to being tidy like obsessive compulsive disorder that leads to extreme minimalism. So noticing when your environment has gone too far one way or another is important. ‘If you find that you’re spending too much time trying to get things exactly right, or having to do things perfectly that it’s beginning to interfere with your day to day life or maybe you don’t have time for anyting else [that’s when it’s a problem]’, Dr Elizabeth Forrester, consultant clinical psychologist and author of How To Deal With OCD explained. The amount of belongings you have can also work the other way: hoarding. A clinical hoarder will have so many belongings that it will impair their everyday life because they physically can’t get around the house.
Have a messy environment could also signal wider problems. ‘Sometimes when things are starting to get too messy it can often indicate when we’re under stress, under pressure, maybe our mood has taken a dip and maybe we’re on the brink of developing depression as well because with depression our motivation to do everyday things is reduced,’ Dr Forrester explains. If you’re concerned that you may be suffering from depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or anyother mental health issue, speak with your GP about the options available to you.
As with so many things, there isn’t a one-size fits all approach when it comes to your living environment and it’s whatever works for you. If you do feel anxious or stressed, it’s a good idea to take a look at your living space and, if it doesn’t make you happy, take actions to address that and see how it impacts your mood. ‘The whole point is to make our lives easier and happier so if it doesn’t make you happy, don’t do it!’ Francine explains. Don’t feel under pressure to adhere to the Pinterest perfect interiors we’ve all grown accustomed to. ‘I think we get kind of sucked into thinking that an ordinary amount of clutter isn’t acceptable, and sometimes we’re driven to try and have this perfect environment,’ says Dr Forrester. ‘We can get so stressed and dissatisfied with our lives if we feel that we’re not living up to these perfect images. We have to find a happy medium - one person’s clutter is another person’s homeliness.’ One study even showed that a messy room made participants more creative. The study about how it affect food choices also found that those in a messy room were more creative and preferred options labelled ‘new’ rather than ‘classic’. So if you’re on the messier side, it’s not all bad.
What’s paramount, is having a living space that you enjoy. So what if you don’t have a white-washed room with sash windows and fancy art work? Your ‘crap’ draw full of rogue tampons and homeless cables is all good if you’re happy with it and if it’s not, start one bit at a time. Let’s just be sure to not set ourselves even more parameters to adhere to; we’ve already got plenty of those.
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