Cleaning your home can actually help you cope with depression—experts explain how
When I was in the midst of a long stretch of depression last year, I found myself incapable of keeping my tiny New York apartment organized. It wasn’t that I was lazy; it was more that I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of stuff I had to fit into my closet. The weight of the issue felt too heavy a burden to bear, so I threw all of my belongings into white trash bags and resorted to wearing only a handful of basics.
One day, while attempting to pull everything out and put things away neatly, I hit a breaking point. The floor was completely covered with clothing, and my walls felt like they were closing in on me. Teary-eyed, exhausted, and full of crippling anxious thoughts, I decided to seek out a professional organizer as a last-ditch effort to save both me and my personal space.
Feeling stressed and having trouble staying organized are not uncommon for those who suffer from depression, says Nicole Reiner, a New York-based therapist.
“People who feel depressed often have a hard time caring for themselves and letting things go, and one’s room can often reflect that."
When we’re depressed, we tend to avoid or put off simple tasks that can drain our limited supply of energy. This can lead to clutter, which further increases feelings of distress. Reiner continues, “The combination of lethargy, lack of motivation, and negative thinking can make something like cleaning one’s home feel like an insurmountable task.”
While there is a social stigma that paints people with depression as lazy, Reiner believes the reality is actually quite the opposite. According to her, “Depression often feels like you have a heavy ball and chain wrapped around your ankles, and you are trying to swim.” Because of this, people living with depression often have to work harder to do basic things that other people can do more easily.
New York-based professional organizer Samantha Shapiro reveals that many people first reach out to her when they are in a state of panic. “They are totally overwhelmed by their home and that is generally flooding into every aspect of their life,” she says.
For Shapiro, clutter was a permanent source of anxiety, depression, and anger when she was growing up; she was raised in a hoarding household, which ultimately inspired her to start a professional organizing business as an adult.
It makes sense that the state of your personal space is directly connected to the state of your mind: a disorganized and cluttered home often implies there are things not being addressed inside of ourselves.
When we are depressed, our minds can feel scattered and all over the place, almost like a messy room.
However, cleaning can be incredibly cathartic and also meditative.
“Cleaning your home is a way to show up for yourself, and a reminder that you care about the quality of your life,” Reiner says. “Decluttering can show us that we can face what seems unmanageable and get past it (and let go of what doesn’t serve us anymore).”
Decluttering could also be seen as the ultimate form of self care. Lili Pettit, a professional organizer based in Los Angeles, believes that “showing up in a mindful, loving way and honoring your home is not only a form of self care, but it’s an active expression of gratitude. With gratitude as a foundation, it’s almost impossible to not feel good inside and out.”
In fact, living in a tidy and clean environment has been proven to elevate your mood; getting organized can help you feel a sense of accomplishment, allowing you to move through feelings of hopelessness that are linked with depression, while also inspiring you to tackle other basic tasks, such as doing your laundry, paying bills, and preparing meals for yourself.
As cleaning helps us occupy and steady our minds, we are able to release negative thought patterns and are reminded of what really matters. Living with less stuff allows us to live with fewer distractions.
Moreover, getting rid of material items from the past could be seen as a metaphor for your mental health. Says Shapiro:
“How can you get over your toxic ex if you still have their old T-shirts in your closet? How can you focus on your work or creative pursuits if your mind is cluttered?
In this way, releasing physical objects that no longer serve a purpose in our lives allows us to let go of things mentally, creating more space for new experiences, relationships, and opportunities. It makes sense that we should release personal possessions as we evolve and grow throughout our lives.
So what can you do to keep your place tidy when you’re going through something that feels impossible?
Reiner recommends her patients start by being compassionate towards themselves. “Understand that you are going through something and it feels harder to stay organized, and that’s okay,” she offers.
Shapiro suggests doing small tasks first.
“Do a load of laundry and put fresh sheets on your bed. Set your timer on 20 minutes and conquer your junk drawer. Open up the window and let some fresh air in. Set aside one trash bag and fill it with clothes to donate and go walk it over to your nearest Goodwill.
Doing simple tasks like these can give us an instant sense of gratification, boosting our mood for the rest of the day.
Pettit advises her clients to get the ball rolling by committing to doing one task in the morning and one at night. For example, commit to doing the dishes in the morning and later that day, commit to vacuuming. “Sticking to that will give them a sense of confidence and eventually momentum will build, instead of taking on too much all at once,” she says.
I have learned that getting organized is not just about going to the Container Store once and buying 20 plastic bins to put all of your miscellaneous crap in. In fact, the decluttering process is never over. Just as going to therapy and yoga regularly can improve your mental health over time, organizing your personal space is a constant practice.
“The process of organizing is much deeper to me than just making your closet look pretty or to have all the perfect matching bins. I try to relate organizing to a yoga practice — you don’t go to yoga once and it totally cures you of whatever you’re looking to heal. It’s something you have to keep up with and maintain every day, says Shapiro.
While cleaning your home is a way of showing up for yourself, it can also increase your awareness of your personal consumption, forcing you to consider what you’ve bought and spent money on in the past. In this way, Shapiro hopes to teach her clients to be more mindful consumers and ask themselves if they really love or need an item before buying it. Decluttering can serve to remind us that it isn’t objects that make us feel fulfilled, it’s experiences and connections.
Thanks to tactics I learned from my own professional organizer and psychotherapist, I now know the value of staying organized, and that coming home to a neat and tidy space can help me relax, recharge, and feel more grounded, even in difficult times. As organizing and cleaning my apartment have become a regular part of my self-care practice, the process has helped me maintain a conscious state of mind that serves me well in all areas of my life.