3 Scientific Reasons Clutter Can Stress You Out

UPDATED: May 27, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 19, 2017

Last spring, SUCCESS contributing editor Melissa Balmain embarked on a personal journey through the en vogue doctrine of neatness apostle Marie Kondo. Balmain might not have emerged a devout “Konvert,” but she did considerably reduce the clutter in her home, and gained a noticeable boost in mental and physical energy.

(For those who missed the height of the craze, the concept is fairly straightforward: Sort through every item in your home by category, and if an object does not “spark joy”—or at least have a necessary function—let it go. Kondo’s minimalism manifesto leads off boldly with, “I have summed up how to put your space in order in a way that will change your life forever.”)

Related: 17 Beautifully Simple Quotes to Channel Your Inner Minimalist

Kondo’s method went mainstream in the U.S. after the English release of her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in 2014. In a New York magazine profile, Kondo explains that the first of her two titles on the art of organization (the follow-up, Spark Joy, published in 2016) was intended as a temporary solution for a lengthy list of clients in Tokyo waiting for personal consultations. Both titles reached the top of the New York Times best-seller list, Fox and NBC have a sitcom about her in the works, and in 2015 she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. It’s safe to say that KonMari, as she’s known, is the Beyoncé of decluttering.

I began noticing copies of the small book with its cloudy blue watercolor cover appearing with increasing regularity on friends’ coffee tables, and even on the desk of a fastidious uncle with a profound love for his label maker. Instagram posts popped up of pristine coat closets and sock drawers with captions involving the word “Kondo’d,” which somewhere along the way had become a verb.


I frequently purge the contents of my apartment, priding myself on fitting all holiday decorations into one (slightly bulging) box and waging a ruthless war against errant office papers.


Personally, I didn’t think I had a need for Kondo’s methods. Already a self-proclaimed “anti-hoarder,” I frequently purge the contents of my apartment, priding myself on fitting all holiday decorations into one (slightly bulging) box and waging a ruthless war against errant office papers. I didn’t give much thought to the cause behind my unflagging impulse to consolidate, and crossed my fingers that my significant other would continue to find it endearing when I hid sponges out of sight under the kitchen sink.

But recently I found myself on an unexpectedly long layover with no reading material, and the cloudy blue cover was in my direct line of sight on a backlit rack of best-sellers. It was a validating read; Kondo and I share a mutual aversion to old receipts and unsightly sponges, and her folding technique is spot-on (though I didn’t quite buy the personification of my socks). What I found most interesting, though, was poking into Kondo’s background—a habit when it comes to authors I enjoy. I learned that feng shui (the Chinese philosophy of achieving harmony with your environment) had been a major influence in Kondo’s study of neatness, and she was intrigued by the concept of creating “psychological distance.” In theory, feng shui can help avoid mental crowding through the careful arrangement of one’s possessions, which naturally pairs with Kondo’s minimalist methods.

Related: 12 Easy Ways to Simplify Your Life

Throughout her books, Kondo asserts that our bodies experience a physical and emotional reaction to tidying up. And it made me wonder: What’s the neurological effect of clutter on your brain?

1. It can (literally) hurt to let go.

In 2012, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine found that when individuals with hoarding tendencies were faced with discarding an object of personal value, two regions of the brain associated with conflict and physical pain showed greater signs of activity, the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula (the same areas that produce nicotine cravings). The stronger the connection to the possession, the greater the resulting feeling of psychological discomfort or anxiety.

Although most people don’t experience heightened ACC/insula activity to that degree, we can all identify with the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you finally decide to toss that pile of ancient bank statements or a Dave Matthews screen tee that shrank in the wash half a decade ago (both casualties of my latest sweep).

2. It can elevate cortisol.

According to David W. Ballard, assistant executive director of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organization Excellence, many adults “operate in a state of chronic stress.” For some, coming home to a chaotic physical environment prevents the body’s cortisol (aka the “stress hormone”) levels from naturally declining throughout the day.

A 2009 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that women who described their households as “cluttered” exhibited increased fatigue and depression with correlating high cortisol levels, and a research project by UCLA in 2012 saw a similar link. Cortisol is bad news for healthy brain activity, as heightened levels of the hormone can cause lasting negative changes in brain function and structure.

3. It can affect your ability to focus.

An excess of physical clutter can overload the visual cortex, competing for attention in your brain and interfering with your ability to focus and process information. You might not realize it, but an overflowing laundry hamper, kitchen table piled with papers and overflowing junk drawer can subconsciously be on par with a whining toddler, distraction-wise.

In a study by the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute, researchers monitored task performance when an individual was surrounded by organized versus disorganized stimuli; overall, subjects were more productive—and less irritable and distracted—in the clutter-free environment. This one is especially relatable; though admittedly I’m on the more neurotic end of the spectrum, I have a hard time doing anything at home before straightening up my entire living space.

The mess threshold differs for everyone (some even encourage embracing the clutter), and for those with “chronic” disorganization, joy is sparked by chaos itself. But for me, there are serious psychological benefits to making that monthly Goodwill run—and my sock drawer has never looked better.

Related: Can Tidying Up Your Home Fix Your Messy Life?

Karin Vandraiss

Karin Vandraiss is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a background in food and travel. She spends off-hours scouting new restaurants and hiking her way through the Pacific Northwest.