It's Time to Declutter And Reduce Your Sensory Overload
Learn to prevent unsafe levels of depression and anxiety by decluttering.
Posted December 16, 2019 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
The holiday season can be very challenging and cause a lot of anxiety for many people, but it’s also a good time to start thinking about how to declutter both your physical and mental space so you can start the New Year feeling renewed. We live in a world with a high degree of sensory overload which can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. Sensory overload can produce physiological states of distress, such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, irritability and confusion. It is fueled by too much clutter, multitasking and technology overuse.
Social psychologist Elaine Aaron found in her research that 15-20% of people are “highly sensitive” to overstimulation from their environment. In her article, “Highly Sensitive People and Depression,” she notes that these chronic environmental experiences and internal overstimulation cause higher levels of anxiety and depression. In my practice, I’ve learned that it is not just highly sensitive people that are prone to sensory overload. In addition, most of my clients benefit from decluttering their mind and environment, and inherently experience moderate reduction in anxiety and depression.
The first step to effectively decluttering is to know how to identify the signs that you’re experiencing overstimulation. Here are few tips that will help you self-assess and determine whether you require decluttering:
Experiencing a “fight or flight” response in certain situations. For emotional overload this can happen in interpersonal situations where you’ve accepted invitations to too many parties, dates or other social events and start to feel like you want to run away or feel irritable. This can also happen environmentally when you walk into a room in your house, your office or a closet and experience feelings of wanting to run out of the room, wanting to shut the door or feel angered.
Reduced bandwidth making it difficult to make decisions, problem solve or communicate effectively. During periods of sensory overload our brains are not working as efficiently because precious resources are being overstimulated by clutter, technology, or
multitasking. This can lead to an increase level of confusion.
Feeling tired is also a sign of sensory overload. When there is a lot of stimuli coming at us at one time, our brains exhaust faster reducing stamina.
Once you’ve determined whether you have any of these symptoms, you’ll be able concentrate on decluttering your mind and your environment. Here are some ways you can be effective in doing both:
Declutter Your Mind
Give yourself space to relax your mind. Meditating 20 minutes a day can help with this. There are a lot of meditation apps that can be useful to help you track consistency and accountability.
Set aside time to reduce the overload. Mindfulness techniques to reduce sensory arousal and stay present in the moment can help with multitasking. Deep breathing and yoga can help with mindfulness.
Another technique I use to help people ground themselves in the present was recently depicted in the movie “Honey Boy.” Choose 5 items in a room. Put a rubber band on your wrist and snap the rubber band one time as you say the name of each item. Then repeat until you feel calm and grounded. For example, clock snap, doorknob snap, chair snap, picture snap, box snap.
Be aware of how much stimulation you can effectively handle before you hit your personal tipping point. You can learn what your tipping point is by identifying when your “fight or flight” response kicks in. Learn to work around your sensory needs instead of trying to barrel through them.
Reduce time on technology. If you have a strong stomach, delete as many apps as you can off your phone that are taking up an inordinate amount of “screen time.” Put a timer on your phone for what’s left. Allow yourself 10 minutes/day for the rest of the apps to keep sensory overload to a minimum.
Declutter Your Environment
Declutter your space. In a study conducted by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families researchers examined 32 California families and found that clutter had a strong impact on their mood and self-esteem. They determined there is a link between high cortisol levels in women and a cluttered household. The same was not true of men. In fact, most psychologists and organization experts agree that decluttering on a piecemeal basis is key to reducing sensory overload. However, noted author and organizing consultant Marie Kondo disagrees and feels decluttering is a marathon. She created the KonMari method, which is a system of simplifying and organizing your home by getting rid of physical items that do not bring joy into your life. It was described in detail in her New York Times best-selling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Regardless of the method, research has proven that decluttering can significantly reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.
I recommend that my clients declutter in a way that feels doable and authentic to them.
Getting the job done is more important than doing it the “right” way. I suggest two options: order a dumpster and use the decluttering marathon to challenge yourself. Fill up the dumpster for only a limited amount of time. For others I suggest the second option which is to write down the areas they want to tackle for decluttering. Make a contract with yourself to tackle one location a weekend and cross that off the list (size doesn’t matter...for example even a drawer counts).
Clearing your mind and environment may need to be done several times a year. It will inherently help improve your mood, self-esteem and your feelings of effectiveness in the world. If you can start the decluttering process now, you’ll have a chance to really kick off next year feeling refreshed and ready for whatever challenges come your way. Remember decluttering is an ongoing process, but done effectively, it will help you to achieve sustainable life satisfaction
"Highly Sensitive People And Depression," by Susan Meindl, www.highlysensitive.org, 2019
"Overstimulated And Overwhelmed: Sensory Overload, Anxiety, and Depression, www.yoursunshine.org, December 27, 2017
"Overstimulation: Taming a Modern Problem That Leads to Anxiety," by Deane Alban, www.reset.me, May 17, 2016