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Why Decluttering Is Good for Your Health

Why Decluttering Is Good for Your Health

It might have looked like just another Saturday morning cleaning session at Sally Thompson’s house in Newberry, Florida. First she cleared out the guest-room closet and placed its contents on the bed.

But then Sally and her husband, Jake, organized the sheets, blankets, pillows and cat paraphernalia into separate piles and decided which things to donate and which to keep – and where to store them. They folded the sheets and blankets to look nice and neat, and then placed the sheets side by side in a basket before returning it to the closet. After 12 years of marriage, they were finally decluttering.

Decluttering, or removing unneeded and unwanted things from your home or office, is not a new concept, but its health benefits have become increasingly recognized. “The mental health benefits are definitely the biggest,” says professional organizer Angela Betancourt, who guided the Thompsons through their decluttering session.

Betancourt, whose decluttering business is based in Gainesville, Florida, and called “The Joy of Less: Decluttering & Home Organizing,” says that after decluttering, her clients typically experience less stress and anxiety, more inner peace and self-confidence, stronger decision-making skills and improved health habits, like better sleep.

At the Thompsons’ home, Betancourt first helped declutter the master bedroom, and Sally says she sleeps much better now in her “sanctuary.” “There’s nothing romantic or peaceful about looking at a closet full of stuff,” she says.

Benefits of Decluttering

For Darcey Rojas, a wellness advocate and healthy home designer, decluttering has a domino effect on better living. “A clutter-free environment allows you to perform tasks of daily living more efficiently because everything you need is readily available and within reach,” she says, adding this leads to healthier habits.

For example, if your dishes are clean and properly stored, you’re more likely to eat at home and enjoy cooking. On a deeper level, Rojas says, “A clutter-free space also contributes to your well-being because you will subconsciously feel like you are providing yourself with a higher level of self-care.”

Removing clutter is also physically healthier because it removes dust particles and toxins from the air, Rojas adds – which can improve allergy symptoms and overall wellness.

Decluttering may also help you feel better about yourself because it’s something of an accomplishment, says Dr. Robert London, a psychiatrist based in New York City. “The clutter leads to anxiety, embarrassment, family stresses – some kind of despair,” London says. “When you relieve the problem and learn to throw things away, you feel better.”

You might also begin to tackle deeper problems that cluttering is covering up, he adds. “You’ll find theories of why people do this. They might have unconscious guilt, so they assuage that guilt by carrying out these rituals.”

Many people collect clutter to make up for some sense of loss in other areas of their lives, says Patty de Vries, director of the Stanford Health Promotion Network, who teaches about decluttering in her classes. Her own parents, who were born on the heels of the Great Depression in the early 1940s, have been saving things for as long as de Vries can remember. She’s now helping them downsize to move out of her childhood home in North Dakota. “I’ve probably sorted through over 25 ‘packages’ of things stuffed everywhere,” she says. “They contain napkins, bills, cards, newspaper clippings, coupons, nail clippers, hotel products.”

While this tendency may be partly generational, de Vries says it also stems from her mother’s sense of loss when she and her brother left home. “We both ended up at Stanford,” de Vries says. “I think my mother took that as a personal loss.”

Approaches to Decluttering

Just as there are varying degrees of clutter, there are different approaches to clearing it. Notably, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, classifies the extreme form of a tendency to clutter – hoarding – as a mental health condition.

In these cases, London uses a cognitive therapy approach to help people think through their attachment to things “with almost surgical detachment,” he says. “Cognition is thinking. I may ask them, ‘When was the last time you looked at those newspapers?”’

Meanwhile, de Vries opts for a more hands-on, piecemeal approach. She compares decluttering to dieting. “If you eat one more Oreo per day, the accumulation will cause an 8-pound weight gain over a year,” she says.

Similarly, losing weight wisely is a gradual process, just as decluttering should happen item by item.

“Start with what’s comfortable: clean out a drawer or just one portion of the drawer. Realize you aren’t going to get it done in one day, and don’t beat yourself up for that,” de Vries says. To stay positive and focused, find a picture of what you want your house to look like. It could be an IKEA display room, or a picture of how your house looked when you first moved into it.

Betancourt cautions against moving too slowly, however. If that happens, “they tend not to make much progress.” She often does several sessions with clients so together they can tackle all the rooms of the house – saving the garage, typically a default storage space, for last. She’ll do two three-hour sessions per room, guiding people through their things with what she calls a tough-love approach. She makes general suggestions, but lets clients decide on the specifics. She encourages the “one in, one out” rule: If you get something new, donate one item. She always uses the word “donate,” too – never “throw away” (unless something really is headed for the trash).

Donation Vs. Throwing Out

Donation, Betancourt explains, conveys a certain sense of gratitude. She literally tells people to thank objects – and the purposes they’ve served in their lives – before giving them away. She also encourages not over-thinking decisions about what to donate. “When in doubt, donate,” she likes to say.

Some of Betancourt’s other quick tips include limiting your sheets to two sets per bed; using good clothes hangers that are all the same; putting loose photos in albums; and having at most three items on a surface, like the top of a dresser, since surfaces tend to be magnets for clutter.

The outcome of all this ordering is not just a tidier environment. Betancourt’s clients have made life changes as a result of decluttering. It frees the mind to make those changes, she says, however big or small. One client had two musical instruments – her own saxophone and her mother’s old guitar – in her closet. The client didn’t know if she would ever play the guitar again, but her mother had just passed away, so keeping the guitar was “non-negotiable,” she says.

So she decided to sell the saxophone, and with that money, she’s now taking guitar lessons, playing on her mother’s guitar. “That was a huge change as a result of her decluttering,” Betancourt says.