You might think that a few piles of clothes here, stacks of books and magazines there, and junked-up dresser drawers aren’t hurting anyone. Think again. All of that clutter overcrowding your personal space might be affecting your health. Don’t take our word for it. Here are science-supported reasons why a neglected mess may be messing with your mind and body, and what you can do about it (besides hire a cleaning lady).
1. Clutter impacts your…sleep.
If the last thing you see before you go to bed is dirty clothes or scattered papers covering your desk, it can leave you feeling stressed and anxious, which can result in a 3 a.m. staring contest with the ceiling. A study published in an online supplement of the journal Sleep last June analyzed the sleeping patterns of subjects who had filled their homes with excessive objects. Researchers found that those who had very cluttered or even unusable bedrooms had worse sleep quality than those people who were less at risk for a hoarding disorder.
Clean up: Before hitting the hay, take a few minutes to put away clothes, organize your papers and generally straighten up your bedroom. When you’re exhausted at the end of the day, this may be the last thing you want to do, but taking a moment to tidy will ensure a better night’s rest. Also consider adding this calming meditation from Deepak Chopra to your bedtime routine to set yourself up for serene slumber.
2. Clutter impacts your…energy.
Whenever you enter or look at a crammed or disorganized space, you can instantly feel it zap your energy. A 2011 study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that “multiple stimuli” present in your visual field at the same time may be competing for neural representation and result in a limited processing capacity of what you’re seeing. Simply put, when you are surrounded by clutter, the visual chaos impedes your ability to focus as well as process information.
Clean up: If you’re having trouble concentrating on a nagging task, like paying the bills, take a quick break to do some light cleaning, like washing the dishes or folding laundry. You can get a lot more done in one minute than you’d think, according to happiness expert Gretchen Rubin. While working on her book, The Happiness Project, Rubin created the “one-minute rule,” where she suggests pushing yourself to do any chore that takes less than one minute. Throw away the junk mail, close the cabinet door, put your dirty socks in the hamper, hang up a wet towel; it’ll help you minimize clutter and create a neater space, she says.
Related: How Tidying Your Space Affects Mental Clarity
3. Clutter impacts your…weight.
Sure, clearing out your cabinets of junk food would help you shed a few, but what if you were to reorganize your entire kitchen to help you lose weight? Instead of shoving fruit in the produce bin at the bottom of the fridge where you never look when you’re hungry, set it out in a beautiful bowl on your counter instead. Cornell University researchers visited more than 700 households to better understand the correlation between people’s weight and the foods they keep in their home. While the results were published in two separate studies, both noted how having fruit on the counter was associated with a lower BMI. In the second study, however, they found that the presence of foods such as candy, cereal, soft drinks, and dried fruit in those homes were associated with weight differences that ranged from 20 to 32 pounds.
Clean up: “What people ‘see’ is going to be what they eat,” confirms New Jersey-based weight loss expert, Liz Josefsberg, a certified personal trainer and nutrition exercise specialist. “I work closely with clients to clean up their food environments, especially in the kitchen so they have a sense of control and can decrease temptation at every turn,” she says. Josefsberg suggests placing tempting foods in hard-to-reach cabinets (so high you’d need to step on a chair to get to them), and keeping healthy foods front and center. “It is paramount that you love the space in which you create food,” she says. “It should be a place that encourages nourishment and is thought of as your true first line of defense in the battle to take weight off.”
4. Clutter impacts your…mental health.
It’s common to have trouble parting with belongings that have sentimental value, like your childhood toys and photos of your first love. Though heart-swellingly sweet, this behavior may cause anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Holding onto possessions well beyond their intended use can have severe emotional, physical, social, and financial effects for the owner and their family members. A Yale University study looked at hoarders and non-hoarders and discovered that hoarders showed increased activity in two regions of the brain—the anterior cingulate cortex and insular cortex—when confronted with items they didn’t want to throw away. These regions of the brain are associated with psychological conflict and pain.
Clean up: While it can be emotional to go through certain belongings that need to be removed (say after the loss of a loved one), one way to tackle to daunting task is to designate a day that you’ll go through everything with a trusted friend. If you struggle to part with an object, the friend can ask you things like, “When’s the last time you wore that?” “When are you going to use this?” “How will you use it or display it?” If the object doesn’t serve you, make you feel happy, or enhance your life, get rid of it by throwing it out, donating it or giving it to someone else who it can benefit.
5. Clutter impacts your…airways.
Sometimes what’s hiding in your clutter is the bigger issue. Dust allergies may cause itching, sneezing, coughing, tightness in the chest, and shortness of breath. While dust mites are a main source of these allergies, other contributors include cockroaches, mold, pollen, and pet hair. Dust mites thrive off of dead skin and are likely living in your sheets, clothing, stuffed animals, carpet, upholstery, furniture, and towels. As gross as that sounds, it gets grosser: Their excrement is the root of your allergic reaction.
Clean up: Wash all linens regularly in hot water. The heat from your dryer will likely kill the dust mites in bedding and clothing, but furniture and carpet can be more difficult to control for mites. Vacuum often or, when possible, opt for wood flooring over wall-to-wall carpeting, especially in bedrooms. Consider switching to “mite-proof” cases on your mattresses and pillows. Improve the air quality in your home with plants that put positive ions into the air, like the snake plant, English ivy, bamboo palm, and peace lily, to name a few, according to a NASA study conducted in 1989 that looked at which plants filter harmful plants and pollutants from our air.