Clutter can stress you out. Here are 5 tips for getting it under control, according to experts.

From junk drawers and stuffed closets to kitchen countertops overtaken by appliances, clutter can creep up on us all. And while retail therapy might make you feel better for a moment, all that accumulated stuff can actually end up making you feel miserable later, experts say. The good news is that a little decluttering can go a long way toward reducing your stress levels.

Here’s how experts say clutter affects your mental health, and their tips for tidying up without getting overwhelmed.

Clutter is “an overabundance of possessions that collectively are chaotic and provide a disorderly living space,” Deacon Joseph Ferrari, a DePaul University psychologist who studies clutter and procrastination, tells Yahoo Life. It’s different from hoarding, which is a psychiatric disorder and is considered “vertical,” meaning people collect many of the same things, such as stacks of toilet paper packages. Clutter is “horizontal,” or made up of many different things.

“When we look at clutter, we look at four different domains: livability of space, does it cause distress, how does it impact your relationships to others and financial well-being,” Ferrari says. While the type of “stuff” is different from what hoarders collect, people who have clutter have “useless or limited-value items, and it causes you stress and impairs your ability,” he explains.

“We know from research that cluttered homes can affect our satisfaction with life,” Natalie Christine Dattilo, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and founder of Priority Wellness Group, tells Yahoo Life.

Ferrari’s research is among those studies, finding that the more cluttered a home is, the less it feels like “psychological home” — which has less to do with the house itself and more to do with the way a home feels like an extension of yourself and a place of respite — and the worse people rate their own well-being.

“Many people identify closely with their home environment, and that clutter or messiness can interfere with our ability to feel pleasure in that space,” says Dattilo. “Disorganized living spaces can contribute to ‘mental clutter,’” which in turn makes it harder to think clearly and stay focused, she explains.

If you’ve ever had multiple tabs open on your computer, for example, you’ve probably felt this. Research suggests that the sight of clutter alone can hamper your focus. One 2019 study found that people had poorer “visual attention” when looking at a screen that was cluttered with information, compared to when they were looking at a relatively minimal one.

And clutter is linked to crippling habits, such as procrastination, Ferrari and his co-authors found. They also found that people with a lot of clutter start to think of their possessions as extensions of themselves, and they tend to be more indecisive, which contributes to procrastination. “That might be why people don’t get rid of things,” Ferrari says.

Even when you’re just trying to relax at home, clutter can create a subtle sense of “household chaos,” one study conducted in the Netherlands suggests. Even though students put through a simulation involving a cluttered living room didn’t report being more stressed than those in a calmer virtual living room, their bodies told a different story: Saliva tests showed their levels of stress biomarkers, such as cortisol, were higher.

Beyond stress, clutter can be harmful to your mental health in other ways, and even impact some surprising facets of your well-being, including nutrition. People living in cluttered spaces report higher rates of “depression, negative emotions about the self — they will say ‘I’m no good, I’m a pack-rat’ — and we see overconsumption of unhealthy food,” says Ferrari.

But getting rid of those clutter-causing items can be distressing in its own right. “Picking that thing up might be a trigger to the past — it could be a negative trigger or a positive one, where you think, Oh, that was from that vacation, or when I met that person,” says Ferrari. And sometimes it’s difficult to get rid of things because they’re shared possessions, so “it may not be yours to decide,” adds Ferrari.

Dattilo says that getting organized can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing for some, while others simply feel too busy to deal with decluttering. “It is sometimes the case that accumulation is slow and imperceptible to the person living with it, but noticeable to others,” she says. “In other words, sometimes we ‘just get used to it’ if we spend enough time in it.”

  1. How do you feel at home? Take note of how you feel at home or in your office. Whether or not it looks cluttered to you, struggling to relax and feel at ease in your bedroom or living room, or to focus at your desk, may be a good cue that it’s time to declutter, Dattilo says.

  2. Challenge your excuses for putting off decluttering: Once you know it’s time to downsize, don’t fall prey to excuses, warns Ferrari. People cite “three lacks” when explaining why they haven’t decluttered, he says: “I lack the time, I lack the resources and I lack the ability.” Ferrari says to pay attention to what excuses you’re making, challenge them and “get creative” about finding ways to get rid of stuff.

  3. Start small: If you’re ready to start decluttering on your own, take it in small bites, advises Dattilo. Start with one confined area that’s actively bothering you — like a kitchen counter you don’t have room to cook on, that desk drawer too crammed to find a cord in or that one overflowing bookshelf.

  4. Find your motivation: Mindset is key too, both Ferrari and Dattilo stress. Many people “really want to do it, but they don’t enjoy it,” Ferrari says, “but they do have the time and the control” and just need to find motivation to get started. You can take steps to shift your mindset so that decluttering might be a little more pleasurable. “You could even turn it into a game to see how fast you can do it or how focused you can get,” suggests Dattilo. “Turn on some music to make it more enjoyable.”

  5. Celebrate your results: Last but not least, “bask in the glory” of your newly organized space, urges Dattilo. Remember that there’s also philanthropic potential — and even some money to be made — in decluttering. “There very well could be a new family in your community who could really use those things” that you can give away as part of your decluttering process, says Ferrari.

Even if the decluttering process doesn’t feel enjoyable at first, the benefits are undeniable, say experts. “In the same way that a cluttered space can make us feel overwhelmed and anxious, a well-organized and tidy space can make us feel calm and safe,” says Dattilo

She adds: “Getting organized can be an act of self-care: When we take care of our space in a loving way, we send an important message to ourselves that we are worth the time and effort it takes to get and stay organized, and that we are deserving of a comfortable and well-maintained living space.”

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