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Unpacking The Connection Between Clutter And Trauma

A senior woman picks up  piece of clothing. She is standing in a very cluttered room.

Traumatic brain injuries and emotional trauma caused by grief, depression, attention deficit disorder, or PTSD can make housecleaning difficult.

Childhood traumas such as abandonment, neglect, and abuse can contribute to hoarding, which also ramps up clutter.

This guide will sensitively explore the connection between trauma and clutter. If you or a loved one’s home is so messy it’s unmanageable, the information and advice in this article can help you navigate it. 

Why Is Clutter A Psychological Issue?

When we watch television shows like Hoarders, most of us have the same thought. “It’s junk! Why not just throw it away?!”

Likewise, when we see clutter in someone’s house, it can drive us neat freaks insane. You feel yourself itching to dig out the broom and kitchen sponge and go to town.

However, it’s not always as cut and dried as it seems.

Sometimes, a person finds cleaning too taxing or can’t help themselves from accumulating more and more, even if most would perceive it as junk.

They also have difficulty throwing away what they have.

For these people, there’s a psychological source for the clutter.

A trauma they experienced – or are currently experiencing – may have impacted their ability to maintain a clean home. 

Trauma can be considered a one-time event, like an attack or accident, or an ongoing matter, such as dealing with domestic violence or a serious illness. 

Trauma impacts the prefrontal cortex in the brain, the part we use for planning, anticipation, decision-making, and judgment.

Due to the variable nature of clutter, how everyone responds to a trauma will differ.

Some can have severe trauma and not necessarily experience the brain changes that cause clutter and hoarding, while others do. 

In fact, someone who’s had trauma in their past might be unable to declutter even if they wanted to. Likewise, the absence of clutter in a person’s home does not negate or minimize their trauma. 

More still, their inability to declutter can continue past the point where they’ve healed.

They’re likely more cognizant of their behavior by now and even willing to stop it, but it’s not that easy. 

However, that doesn’t mean someone dealing with trauma is doomed to a home full of clutter forever.

The brain is an amazing organ that’s likely capable of generating neural circuits and essentially rewiring itself.

It doesn’t happen overnight, but the brain could potentially strengthen its prefrontal cortex functions to allow someone with trauma to be better able to combat clutter. 

How Do You Emotionally Detach From Clutter?

Bidding adieu to clutter is not as easy as it seems. Mental blocks that make it difficult to declutter or realize that an item holds no value can hinder the process. 

The first step is emotionally detaching from clutter.

The following decluttering strategies will help you get into the organizing mindset. 

Keep Some Items

This might seem counterintuitive, especially in a home that’s reached severe levels of clutter. How does keeping anything clean up the home?

You don’t have to remove everything. The goal is to make your home hospitable and safe. 

  • Items shouldn’t be stacked up to the ceiling.
  • A person walking through should have clear paths to navigate from room to room.
  • There should be no items that cause animal infestations, mold, mildew, and other health hazards.

So, how do you determine what to keep? Ask yourself some questions. 

Does the item make you happy or bring up happy memories? Why do you like it and want to keep it? Is it because it’s high-value or a precious item from someone cherished?

If you had to buy the item at full price, would you? 

If you answered yes to the above questions, you might consider keeping it.

However, for anything you’re waffling on, that’s not a good candidate for holding onto. 

Think Of What A Great Home It’s Going To

Many people struggle with decluttering because they imagine the items they throw away going straight to a trash heap. 

Admittedly, some items are destined for a landfill depending on their condition, but not all.

If you have knick knacks and other items in good condition that you no longer have a use for, you can make someone else really happy by giving them that item. 

Imagine the person’s face when they visit a thrift store and find your item in the bin. You’ll make their day. 

Considering what good you can do for others by giving your items away can make the process easier. 

Personally Donate It

Another way to feel good about your donating decision is to personally visit the donation center, YMCA, or thrift store.

You can experience the clerk’s gratitude, see their smiling face, and watch as they take your items.

You’ll know they aren’t being thrown away, and you’ll feel happy to know that you’re helping someone else. 

Repurpose Some Items

If you’re having a hard time letting items go but can’t think of any way they’re useful, why not try making them into something handy instead? 

For example, if you’ve held onto a set of earrings that were passed down to you but don’t have pierced ears and don’t plan to, why not take the stones in the earrings and make them into a piece of jewelry you will wear, such as a ring or necklace?

You can repurpose old shirts that no longer fit or are from a deceased family member into a quilt.

There are many ways to take old items hogging up valuable space and make them into useful additions throughout the house. 

Come Back To Hard Items Later 

Some items won’t be so easily distinguishable as to whether you should keep or toss them. You can waffle for hours or days as you debate what to do. 

Emotionally detaching from items is not easy, but you don’t have to make the process harder for yourself. Allow yourself the leeway to put some items in a “not sure” category. 

When you’re finished sorting the rooms of your home, go back to this pile and decide.

Don’t Rush The Process

Decluttering is not an overnight process. Unless you have a deadline from a landlord, you have the luxury of time.

Don’t drag out easy decisions, but if you’re agonizing over a choice, you can sleep on it for a night or two. 

What Does Decluttering Do For Mental Health?

Part of healing from trauma could involve decluttering your home, especially if it’s in a severe state of disarray. After all, decluttering can benefit your mental health in many ways.

Here is an overview.

Increases Your Energy

You don’t realize how much time, focus, and energy you dedicate to disorganization until your home is clean. You won’t have that cloud of clutter hanging over your head. 

Instead, you’ll have more energy to focus on other endeavors, such as hobbies or interests, building relationships with friends or loved ones, and nourishing yourself mind, body, and spirit. 

Benefits Your Sleep

Surrounding yourself with clutter in your bedroom makes it hard to get quality sleep.

Your bed might be too messy to comfortably sleep. The air quality likely isn’t optimal, and the stress of being in a cluttered space doesn’t help you unwind and stay asleep.

Clearing your space will pave the way to higher-quality sleep. 

Reduces Stress

It’s stressful to be surrounded by messes, even if it has become a part of your everyday life and you’ve forgotten what a neat home looks like.

The stress wears on you in a space that’s supposed to shelter you from the rigors of the outside world.

Tidying up will be a big difference-maker in your stress levels. You’ll find yourself fully capable of unwinding at home. 

Improves Your Physical Health

Physical and mental health are linked, so feeling healthier also makes your mind healthier.

Decluttering will reduce health hazards, from mold to mildew and tripping risks around every corner. 

Helps Your Relationships

Hoarders often tend to isolate. They can’t stop their habits but feel embarrassed and don’t want anyone to see them.

Does that sound familiar to you?

As your home has gotten messier, you’ve likely stopped hosting family gatherings and no longer have friends and neighbors over.

You spend every holiday alone or at someone else’s house.

Decluttering will allow you to welcome others into your home again, strengthening your relationships as you spend more meaningful time together. 

Increases Self-Esteem

You will also feel proud of your home, as it’s a neat, inviting place for hosting movie nights, Sunday dinners, birthday parties, sleepovers, and any other type of gathering. 

Improves Focus 

Your ability to get more done will sharply increase in a neater home.

You can concentrate on tasks from work to cooking or partaking in other hobbies. 

Bottom Line 

Clutter is related to trauma. That doesn’t mean everyone who experiences trauma will become hoarders, but trauma can affect the part of the brain in charge of decision-making and planning, creating situations ideal for hoarding.

Decluttering your home is a slow-going process, but if you continue chipping away and making progress with each cleaning, you will eventually reach a point you’re happy with.

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