Decluttering the Mind: How Mess and Clutter Impact Mental Well-being and What You Can Do About It


Stress is an inevitable part of life, and our bodies have evolved mechanisms to help us cope with it. One such mechanism involves the release of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Cortisol serves various functions in the body, including regulating metabolism, immune responses, and blood pressure. However, research has shown that cortisol levels can vary between individuals, and there are intriguing differences between men and women in how cortisol responds to stress. In this detailed article, we will explore the factors contributing to why women often exhibit higher cortisol levels under stress compared to men.

Biological Factors

  • Hormonal Differences: One of the primary reasons for gender differences in cortisol responses to stress is hormonal variation. Women have distinct hormonal profiles due to the presence of estrogen and progesterone, which fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle. Estrogen has been found to influence the sensitivity of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the body’s stress-response system. This means that hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle can affect cortisol levels, with some women experiencing higher cortisol levels during certain phases.
  • Pregnancy and Postpartum: Pregnancy and the postpartum period involve significant hormonal fluctuations, with high levels of stress often accompanying these life stages. During pregnancy, cortisol levels naturally rise to support the developing fetus, and after childbirth, women experience the “baby blues” and postpartum stress, which can further elevate cortisol levels.

Psychological Factors

  • Stress Perception: How individuals perceive and react to stress plays a crucial role in cortisol responses. Research has suggested that women may be more likely to ruminate on stressors and experience emotional distress in response to certain stressors, which can lead to prolonged cortisol elevation.
  • Social and Cultural Factors: Societal and cultural expectations can influence how men and women handle stress. Women may face unique stressors related to gender roles, discrimination, or caregiving responsibilities, which can contribute to chronic stress and higher cortisol levels. Additionally, the expectation of women to express their emotions openly may lead to greater emotional distress in response to stressors.

Lifestyle and Environmental Factors

  • Lifestyle Choices: Lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, and sleep significantly impact cortisol levels. Women may have different dietary preferences and exercise routines compared to men, which can affect cortisol regulation. Moreover, sleep disturbances, which are more common in women, can lead to increased stress and cortisol levels.
  • Chronic Stressors: Women often juggle multiple roles, including work, family, and caregiving responsibilities. The cumulative burden of chronic stressors can lead to sustained cortisol elevation. Furthermore, women are more likely to report experiencing interpersonal stressors, which can have a more significant impact on cortisol responses.

Psychophysiological Factors

  • Brain Structure and Function: Brain differences between men and women may contribute to divergent cortisol responses. For instance, studies have shown that the amygdala, a region involved in processing emotions and stress responses, may be more active in women, leading to heightened stress reactivity.
  • HPA Axis Sensitivity: The HPA axis, responsible for cortisol release, may function differently in men and women. Some studies suggest that women may have greater HPA axis reactivity, meaning their bodies respond more vigorously to stressors, leading to higher cortisol levels.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sight of clutter and mess in your home?

Have you walked in the door only to feel overloaded by scattered papers, unwashed dishes, and clothes in disarray?

Maybe you’ve even had arguments because it bothers you more than it bothers your partner or housemates.

You’re not alone. Many people report a messy house can trigger feelings of stress and anxiety.

Cognitive Overload:

When we’re surrounded by distractions, our brains essentially become battlegrounds for attention. Everything competes for our focus. But the brain, as it turns out, prefers order and “singletasking” over multitasking. Order helps reduce the competition for our attention and reduces mental load. While some people might be better than others at ignoring distractions, distractable environments can overload our cognitive capabilities and memory.

Clutter, disorder, and mess can affect more than just our cognitive resources. They’re also linked to our eating habits, productivity levels, mental health, parenting decisions, and even our willingness to donate money.

Are Women More Affected Than Men?

Research suggests the detrimental effects of mess and clutter may be more pronounced in women than in men. One study of 60 dual-income couples found that women living in cluttered and stressful homes had higher levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) and heightened depression symptoms.

These effects remained consistent even when factors like marital satisfaction and personality traits were taken into account. In contrast, the men in this study seemed largely unaffected by the state of their home environments.

The researchers theorized that women may feel a greater responsibility for maintaining the home. They also suggested the social aspect of the study (which involved giving home tours) may have induced more fear of judgment among women than men.

We will all live with clutter and disorganization to some degree in our lives. Sometimes, however, significant clutter problems can be linked to underlying mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding disorder, major depressive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and anxiety disorders. This raises a crucial question: which came first? For some, clutter is the source of anxiety and distress; for others, poor mental health is the source of disorganization and clutter.

Not All Mess is a Problem:

It’s important to remember clutter isn’t all bad, and we shouldn’t aim for perfection. Real homes don’t look like the ones in magazines. In fact, disorganized spaces can result in increased creativity and elicit fresh insights. Living in constant disorder isn’t productive, but striving for perfectionism in cleanliness can also be counterproductive. Perfectionism itself is associated with feeling overwhelmed, anxiety, and poor mental health.

Mess Makes Me Anxious So What Can I Do About It?

It’s important to remember you have some agency over what matters to you and how you want to prioritize your time.

One approach is to try to reduce the clutter. You might, for example, have a dedicated decluttering session every week. This may involve hiring a cleaner (if you can afford it) or playing some music or a podcast while tidying up for an hour with your other household members. Establishing this routine can reduce clutter distractions, ease your overall mental load, and alleviate worry that clutter will spiral out of control.

You can also try micro-tidying. If you don’t have time for a complete cleanup, commit just five minutes to clearing one small space.

If the clutter is primarily caused by other household members, try to calmly discuss with them how this mess is affecting your mental health. See if your kids, your partner, or housemates can negotiate some boundaries as a household over what level of mess is acceptable and how it will be handled if that threshold is exceeded.

It can also help to develop a self-compassionate mindset. Mess doesn’t define whether you are a “good” or “bad” person and, at times, it may even stimulate your creativity. Remind yourself that you deserve success, meaningful relationships, and happiness, whether or not your office, home, or car is a mess.

Take comfort in research suggesting that while disorganized environments can make us susceptible to stress and poor decision-making, your mindset can buffer you against these vulnerabilities.

If clutter, perfectionism, or anxiety has begun to seem unmanageable, talk with your GP about a referral to a psychologist. The right psychologist (and you may need to try a few before you find the right one) can help you cultivate a life driven by values that are important to you.


Clutter and mess are more than just visual nuisances. They can have a profound impact on mental well-being, productivity, and our choices. Understanding why clutter affects you can empower you to take control of your mindset, your living spaces, and, in turn, your life. So, take a step towards a clutter-free and mentally healthier environment today.


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