A Clean and Tidy Home Can Boost Your Mental Health—Here's Where to Start

Take small steps toward a cleaner home and improved well-being.

Mental health benefits of a clean home: Paper Head with chaos brains
Photo: Olivia Barr

Some symptoms of depression are well known: lethargy, a loss of interest in things you once found enjoyable, hopelessness, and deep sadness. But there are other depression warning signs you may not be aware of: stacks of dirty dishes in the sink; a towering pile of unfolded laundry that you washed days ago; boxes, wrappers, and bags dotting the disheveled landscape of your home.

We're all prone to messy moments, but when intense disorganization is accompanied by symptoms of high stress, anxiety, burnout, or depression, it's often an indicator that you may be struggling with your mental health.

It's no wonder that less-than-ideal mental well-being can often lead to unorganized surroundings. According to the DSM-5, the handbook that mental health professionals use to guide their diagnoses, the criteria for depression include a diminished motivation and interest in activities, a slow-down of physical movement, loss of energy, and indecisiveness—all things that usually come in handy in order to keep your home clean and organized.

Scientific studies frequently find correlations between mental wellness and clutter. For example, one 2016 study from the University of New Mexico found that clutter directly interfered with the participants' ability to feel pleasure in a space.

And the tricky part is, if you're grappling with your mental well-being, but still desire a clean, organized home, you may, unfortunately, find yourself trapped in a vicious cycle, something Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD, clinical health psychologist and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, calls a chicken-or-egg dilemma. "Recent studies have shown that clutter in our homes is associated with higher cortisol levels [our stress hormone], but it's still unclear which comes first," she says. "Is it that when we are under stress, our ability to maintain a well-organized home becomes impaired? Or when our home is in disarray, does that make us feel more stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious?"

She believes it's a combination of both—high stress prevents us from organizing our homes, but the clutter itself can also lead to stress.

Shira Gill, organizing expert and author of Minimalista, thinks clutter goes even further than taking an emotional toll on your mind, indirectly affecting other areas of our lives. She says clutter can additionally lead to relationship strains, along with financial stressors, which can include late fees on lost bills and overspending by buying duplicates. Clutter can also distract you from focusing on other priorities.

The Positive Benefits of a Clean, Organized Home

Experts agree that tidy, organized spaces can improve mental health. Gill says that a well-edited home can create "a whole cascade of mental health benefits," which can include a sense of clarity and control, an improved quality of life, a boosted sense of confidence, an increase in productivity, and a more tranquil atmosphere.

But whether you're dealing with a mental health condition or not, organization takes time and commitment. It's just more difficult when you finally get yourself out of bed and you're faced with a choice: shower or fold laundry? Cleaning may feel like a superhuman effort, but know that even if it's simply putting a dish away, it can pay off in big ways for your psyche.

"Decluttering requires decision-making, emotion regulation, prioritization, and patience," Dattilo says. "We receive important cues about how we're doing by what we're doing, and when we maintain an organized home, we reinforce the message that we are worth the time, effort, and practice it takes to live in a cared-for and curated space. In the same way that a cluttered space can make us feel overwhelmed and anxious, a well-organized and tidy space can make us feel calm and safe."

How to Get Organized—Especially if You're Struggling

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Start small—very small.

Even if you don't wrestle with serious anxiety or depression, the undertaking of tidying an entire room or bursting closet can be extremely overwhelming, Dattilo points out. Make your clean-up goals as small and doable as possible. There are two great ways to do this. One, break up a clean-up job into chunks by reducing the size or scope. Dattilo recommends "setting yourself up for success by starting with a drawer, a bookshelf, or the kitchen pantry."

Two, set a time limit and stop cleaning the second it's up. Try Gill's "the 15-minute win" trick. "Set a timer for 15 minutes and knock out a single drawer," she says. "When you successfully tackle one shelf, clear a surface, or edit a single drawer, you'll start to see yourself as someone capable of getting organized, and gain the energy and momentum to keep going, one small project at a time."

RELATED: 7 Low-Effort, Mini Cleaning Resolutions You Can Start Today

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Create simple systems.

When you're depressed, burned out, or anxious, it can be difficult to think clearly through all the "mental clutter" you're dealing with as well. That's why it's key to have some straightforward systems in place that will make it easier to keep your spaces in order.

"Take note of the items you frequently misplace and create a clear and designated home for each one," Gill says. "For example, the keys can go on the small hook by the door, your phone can always be returned to the charging station in your office, and your sunglasses can live in your daily handbag when not in use. The key is to pick one intuitive and designated spot and commit to it."

RELATED: 10 Ways to Clean Smarter, Not Harder

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Cultivate a mindful approach.

Dattilo says organizing is a great chance to practice mindfulness. "Commit to 'single-tasking,' and give whatever you're doing the attention it deserves," she explains. "Make the process meaningful or interesting in some way. By approaching it this way, even the most mundane task becomes a little more interesting. And anything that increases our enjoyment of a task increases the likelihood that we will do it again."

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Ask yourself questions.

When you're decluttering with improved mental health as a goal, it's important to ask yourself questions that can help you focus on creating a space that supports your goal. Gill says the following questions are "rooted in abundant thinking" and will support you as you "keep things that are truly meaningful and functional for you in the present."

  • Does this item support my current values and priorities?
  • Does this item fit in with the vision I have for my ideal home?
  • Could this item be useful/helpful for another person?
  • Would I buy this item for full price today?
  • Would it impact my daily life not to have this item?
  • Is this item really worth the space it's taking up in my home?
  • Is this item adding value to my life right now?
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Bask in the glory.

When you've organized the junk drawer or taken on the linen closet, and you've done this task while stressed or blue, take time to really celebrate yourself and your accomplishment. This was no small feat.

"Spend time in your clean space," Dattilo says. "Let yourself enjoy it. When we take care of our home in an intentional and loving way, we send an important message to ourselves that we are worth the time and effort it takes and that we are deserving of a comfortable and well-maintained living space."

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