Clutter is a Trauma Symptom

New studies suggest a strong link between clutter and feeling anxious, depressed, unfocused and socially isolated. Researchers blame the clutter itself for causing those problems. Their theory is, if you clean up the clutter, then you’ll be more focused, connected and happy.

I think there’s some truth to that. But here’s my hypothesis: Clutter can be yet another symptom of trauma, alongside depression, anxiety, isolation and so on, rather than the direct cause of those symptoms.

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We know trauma affects people neurologically — the brain, physiology, feelings and behavior. Trauma can make people compulsive and fill their minds with stressful thoughts. It can make you feel immobilized and unproductive. It may affect your neurology in a way that comes out as cluttering behavior — which is to say, piling up stuff around your home or workspace, meaning to organize it someday, but lacking the inner power to do so.

I believe cluttering can be a trauma-fueled version of our nesting instinct. Nesting — making your home comfortable, orderly and well-stocked — is a good and natural desire. But trauma can push that instinct into something extreme and overwhelming, causing stress and paralysis instead of comfort and order. That’s what I think trauma-based cluttering is: the nesting instinct amplified to an unhelpful level.

While researchers may assume that the symptoms accompanying clutter are causing the clutter, I think it’s actually the other way around – that the clutter is itself a trauma symptom alongside the depression, anxiety and lack of focus. In other words, trauma could cause all of those problems, including clutter. Does that ring true for you?

However it starts, these symptoms interact with each other in an unhelpful cycle. That’s why when you’re healing trauma, you don’t have to start by resolving the root causes from way back when. You can start with any one of your current symptoms, wherever you feel enough inner power to take action.

For example, are you ready to throw out the old veggies in the fridge and clean those icky drawers? That’s a great place to begin! Do you have a couple hours to sort your papers into “trash,” “file” and “deal with” piles? Awesome! Just doing that would probably lift your mood and improve your ability to focus. Decluttering is a powerful re-regulating exercise with the nice bonus of getting your bills paid.

But to have the power to declutter at all, you first must be healing the neurological dysregulation that trauma causes. Then your cluttering tendencies and other trauma symptoms will start to settle down. A wonderful sense of peace and possibility can enter when the clutter in your life begins to clear.

 

Physical Clutter

Let’s talk first about physical clutter, those belongings strewn around your home, yard, car or office. The mess is visually chaotic, full of stuff you don’t use or need. It makes it hard to find what you do need, like your keys, because they got buried under the clutter.

For example: Do you have a closet full of different clothing sizes in case you lose or gain weight — even though the ones that don’t fit are old and out of style? Meanwhile, do the clothes that do fit don’t have a proper place in drawers or on hangers, clean and ready to wear? I get it, because it’s common for people who struggle with their weight. You just don’t know what size you’ll be.

What you can do is store the clothes that don’t fit right now, but keep them organized, not just in piles that make you feel bad when you try something that’s the wrong size.

Here’s another example: Do you pick up things at thrift stores or on the street that still have use? I do this. It’s that legacy of childhood scarcity. Try passing those things up if you don’t need them right now, rather than accumulating them “just in case.”

What about the things you’ve already accumulated? It feels good when I take stuff I’m not using and donate it. A rule of thumb: If you could replace something for $20 and you’re not using it, give it away. For pricier items, make a plan to sell them within a timeline. If you don’t have the power to sell stuff productively, you might find someone to partner with and split the proceeds. Otherwise, donating is an easy way to declutter, even if the stuff has value. It will still be useful to someone.

Next, consider the cans and containers that have been sitting in your cupboard for years. Even cans have expiration dates. As a formerly hungry kid, I overbuy food for security. But now that I can afford groceries, I’m giving my excess unexpired food to the food pantry where it’s needed. That gives me shelf space and feels re-regulating. Visual openness is peaceful.

What about cars that don’t run? Worst case, they’re in the front yard, causing shame as they did in my childhood. We had a non-working car for ages; we kept paying for its registration while counting on the sale money, which never came through. That was demoralizing. But getting rid of a junk car requires protracted steps that can overwhelm. Donating it is an option if selling isn’t realistic for you right now.

Let’s talk toiletries. I recently invested in some quality makeup with the help of a makeup artist. She had me pull out my old cheap stuff and suggested I throw out what I no longer used. I actually felt emotionally attachment to my 20-year-old makeup! It represented my young mom days, but I’m not using this stuff anymore and nobody wants it. Throwing it out felt freeing.

Sometimes decluttering reveals hoarding tendencies — attachments to items from the past, or fear of future scarcity. But the past is safely stored in photos and memories, not belongings. And you can create security now in healthier ways than cluttering. I’m letting go of things I won’t use to make space for mental states that bring good things into my life, like imagination and productivity.

 

Mental, Emotional, Relationship and Time Clutter

Clutter isn’t just physical stuff blocking your home and workspace. CPTSD also gives many of us mental clutter — too much swirling in our minds, making us unable to focus or plan. I rely heavily on lists, timers and calendars to get thoughts out of my head so I’m not endlessly reminding myself what to do next. I declutter mentally twice a day using my techniques to release stressful thoughts. You can learn and try them in my free Daily Practice course.

Emotional clutter, which includes old hurts, beliefs and resentments that you drag around, hoarding them as if they’re still true, long after their expiration date. Like being mad forever about some high school romance drama. Eventually I did enough healing work to let it go. When I did, that emotional space opened up again.

Seeking out social media or news just to stoke your anger is pointless emotional clutter, too, unless it spurs you to solve an actual problem.

Sad stories you keep telling yourself about your limitations based on past events also count as emotional clutter. For example: “I was rejected by my mom so I’ll never have relationships.” Consider: Is that really true forever? Emotional clutter freezes you in time instead of allowing new possibilities to unfold. Try a one-day fast from talking or thinking about a problem you feel stuck on. Create space for other thoughts and see what opens up.

Relationship clutter is having mostly draining people around you and few people with whom you feel safe, seen and heard. Declutter by gently removing unhealthy relationships while making time for affinity-based connections. You don’t need an airtight reason to step back from someone. Follow your intuition.

Time clutter is when you overfill your schedule to the point of exhaustion. This leaves no space for healing, learning, creativity and decisive action. Unscheduled openings allow you to recharge and get ideas for improving your life beyond avoidance patterns and past traumas.

You don’t have to declutter your whole life. You can simply begin by decluttering one thing, and it could be anything — just one closet, one obligation, one grudge or one toxic connection. Yes, old feelings will arise. You can sign up and begin my free Daily Practice course to process those feelings without getting destabilized or falling back into clutter habits. Then enjoy the openness and empowerment that naturally develops when you create spaciousness in your life.

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