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Mess stress: Why a cluttered space can stress you out

Do you ever look at a pile of clothes or dishes and immediately feel on edge? It may come as no surprise that clutter can stress us out, but what is happening to our brain and body when it does? On this edition of Out & About Caley Bedore looks at that mess stress and has more on why tidying up also gives our mood a makeover – Feb 18, 2021

According to Dr. Neil Fournier, a neuroscientist and associate professor in the psychology department at Trent University, a cluttered space triggers a physical response in the body.

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“Some early studies show if you have a visual display and it looks chaotic and cluttered it will cause arousal and cause pumping of adrenaline in your bloodstream,” said Fournier.

He said that release of stress hormones means our blood pressure rises, we breathe faster, we are on edge and that mess stress might be affecting our eating habits as well.

“People who tend to have cluttered homes, they are two to three times more likely to consume chocolate than, say, an apple,”‘ said Fournier.

“We know that in extremely cluttered environments about 70 per cent of individuals struggle with obesity. So clearly there is some connection to a cluttered home and mental health outcomes.”

He said by removing the negative response trigger (i.e. cleaning up) we get a sense of reward and satisfaction in the brain and body.

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“The removing of the aversive is going to lead to that behaviour reoccurring in the future at a higher probability,” he said. “So cleaning your room has inherently rewarding and reinforcing effects.”

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Essentially, it feels good.

He said getting that response might be more helpful now than ever.

“We don’t know when the pandemic is going the end, when there is going to be vaccines, when our kids can go back to school safely, when we can take off our masks and not worry and that is exhausting to us from a behavioural and cognitive perspective,” said Fournier.

“If you can manage your environment and control it, that is going to give you a sense of stress relief.”

Professional organizer and founder of Organized by Design Nicole Cooke said since the pandemic began she’s noticed more people tackling those cluttered spaces.

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“People are spending more time in their homes so I think they are noticing it more and it is impacting them more,” said Cooke. “People are also working from home and their workspace might be the kitchen table so organization is important.”

She said the first step to tidying up is to get rid of the things we no longer need.

“Usually if we are dealing with clutter it is because we have too much stuff for the space,” she said.

“Go through and purge things that are old, broken, out of date, expired, they have holes in them, let those things go.”


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Then, Cooke said to find some storage solutions that hold and display your items for easy access.

“Another good tip is to create ‘drop zones’ in the home,” she said. “We already have those spots that we tend to drop our keys or wallet, for example, so create a spot with storage that can hold those items in an organized way.”

Cooke said the front hall is a common spot for clutter buildup and that space, especially, can have a significant impact on your mood.

“It is the first thing you see when you walk in or out of your home,” said Cooke. “So that area, and how it works for us and looks, really sets us up for the day.”

She also said that once you tidy up a space it is important to identify what led to the mess in the first place so you don’t continue the stress and mess cycle.

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“If you don’t tackle the ‘why’ it happens then it is going to be a waste of your time and money,” she said.


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