Why We Collect Clutter and How to Clear It

In our modern society, when we get lambasted with information — dozens of pieces of junk mail in our physical mailbox and more in our email, not to mention social media — it’s an awesome task to stay on top of the clutter, and most of us don’t.

Refrigerators: Clutter Magnets

UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) studied the homes of 32 Los Angeles families over four years (2001 to 2005) and published their findings in the book Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century. The families were dual-income, middle-class households with school-age children and represented a wide range of occupations and ethnic groups.

But the results generated from almost 20,000 photos, 47 hours of family-narrated home video tours, and 1,540 hours of videotaped family interviews made clear one thing that virtually every middle-class American home has in common: lots of stuff.

Take the refrigerator.

The typical refrigerator in the study held 52 objects; the most crowded displayed 166 different objects (about half of the number of magnets on ours). In these homes, stuff covered as much as 90 percent of the fridge. According to a UCLA Magazine article explaining the study, “The Clutter Culture,” researchers noticed a correlation between the number of objects families put on the fridge and the rest of the stuff in their homes.

Clutter Leads to Distress

The American workplace is intense and demanding. When we come home, we want material rewards,” says Elinor Ochs, director of CELF and a linguistic anthropologist. But the group’s study found that the bigger the mess, the more stress — at least for the moms interviewed.

Two of the CELF team’s psychologists, Darby Saxbe, PhD, and Rena Repetti, PhD, measured levels of cortisol in study participants’ saliva. The researchers found that higher cortisol levels were more likely in moms who used words like “mess” and “very chaotic” to describe their homes, and who had higher “stressful home scores.” Lower cortisol levels were more likely in moms who had higher “restorative home scores.”

In a report on their findings in the January 2010 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Drs. Saxbe and Repetti wrote:

These results held after controlling for marital satisfaction and neuroticism. Women with higher stressful home scores had increased depressed mood over the course of the day, whereas women with higher restorative home scores had decreased depressed mood over the day.

The Hoarding Brain

In 2012, David Tolin, PhD, and his Yale School of Medicine research team recruited three groups of people — those with hoarding disorders, those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and folks without any type of hoarding or OCD issue — to bring in a pile of junk mail from home. The pieces of mail were photographed, as were pieces of mail supplied by the lab.

Researchers had the participants lie in an MRI machine while viewing the photos and make a decision about which items should be kept or shredded.

Compared with the control and OCD groups, the people with hoarding disorders showed abnormally low brain activity in the insula (within the cerebral cortex) and the anterior cingulate cortex when they reviewed the lab mail. But the same brain regions lit up with hyperactivity when these people assessed their own possessions.

These are the same regions of the brain associated with pain, both physical and psychological. The more emotional attachment to an object, the greater the pain.

The results of the study were published in the August 2012 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry. As the abstract says, the people with hoarding disorders were the ones who experienced “not just right” feelings. In order to avert more anxiety or satiate their growing unease, they hold on to stuff. Dr. Tolin believes that hoarding bears more relation to autism and anxiety than to OCD, even though hoarding has long been considered a type of OCD.

“[Hoarding] isn’t a house problem,” Tolin was quoted as saying in Tara Parker-Pope’s blog in The New York Times. “It’s a person problem. The person needs to fundamentally change their behavior.”

How to Clear the Clutter

Here are] some behavioral tips offered by Dr. Gerald Nestadt, director of the Johns Hopkins OCD clinic, in an issue of The Johns Hopkins Depression & Anxiety Bulletin:

  1. Make immediate decisions about mail and newspapers. Go through mail and newspapers on the day you receive them and throw away unwanted materials immediately. Don’t leave anything to be decided on later.
  2. Think twice about what you allow into your home. Wait a couple of days after seeing a new item before you buy it. And when you do purchase something new, discard another item you own to make room for it.
  3. Set aside 15 minutes a day to declutter. Start small — with a table, perhaps, or a chair — rather than tackling the entire, overwhelming house at once. If you start to feel anxious, take a break and do some deep breathing or relaxation exercises.
  4. Dispose of anything you have not used in a year. That means old clothes, broken items, and craft projects you’ll never finish. Remind yourself that many items are easily replaceable if you need them later.
  5. Follow the OHIO rule: Only Handle It Once. If you pick something up, make a decision then and there about it, and either put it where it belongs or discard it. Don’t fall into the trap of moving things from one pile to another again and again.
  6. Ask for help if you can’t do it on your own. If you feel these strategies are impossible to carry out and you cannot cope with the problem on your own, seek out a mental health professional.

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