Welcome to part one of the four part series, Causes of Anxiety.
If you missed the introduction post, go ahead and check that out first: Causes of Anxiety: A four part series. It’s a short read, and just explains the topics I’ll be covering over the next four weeks.
Causes of Anxiety, Part One: How your Home could be causing you Anxiety
Apparently yesterday (May 17th) was National Pack Rat day. I consider myself to be a reformed Pack Rat. Growing up I was wildly unorganized. My bedroom was every neat-freak’s nightmare. The floor was covered wall to wall in an ankle deep pile of clean and dirty clothes. And yes, they were mixed together. I somehow knew which were clean and which were dirty. The walls themselves were covered in drawings, messily scribbled quotes, and endless tack holes.
Sometimes I would spend the weekend away from home, and would come back to a pristinely organized room, clean clothes neatly hung or put in their drawers, desk perfectly ordered and bed made. This was my mom’s doing. My mom was the opposite of me. Her kitchen cabinets were filled with neatly labelled Tupperware containing everything from flour to spices to cereal. She even labelled each cereal either “Mom’s Cereal”, “Dad’s Cereal” or “Kid’s Cereal”. For the most part I think she’d given up on ever getting me to clean my room or be organized in any way. But every once in a while when I was gone long enough, she couldn’t help herself. She had to conquer the horrific tornado that was my room.
I used to have such mixed feelings when she did this. On one hand I felt upset, and afraid that she’d thrown out something important. As a Pack Rat, literally everything was important to me. Even bits of trash sometimes held meaning because they came from some special moment or event. But on the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly relieved. My room suddenly felt spacious and relaxing. I found myself wanting to spend more time there, and felt a huge burst of creativity and possibility. My mind felt clear, and there was an obvious shift away from depression and anxiety.
Now that I’ve learned more about how clutter affects us, that feeling of calm I got after my mom cleaned my room makes total sense.
Scientists have found that a messy home actually increases Cortisol, the stress hormone. There was a study done in 2010 where linguistic analysis software was used to analyze the way 60 individuals described their homes. The words they used to describe their homes ultimately put the individuals into two categories: Stressful Home, and Restorative Home.
Those who were put into the Stressful Home category (who had cluttered, messy or unfinished homes) were found to express higher levels of the stress hormone Cortisol and were more likely to be depressed or fatigued. Those who were put into the Restorative Home category showed decreases in depressed mood, and their Cortisol levels were found to be more normal. This study was published in the scientific journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Clutter can make it harder to focus on a task
Researchers at Princeton University published their findings on this (here) in 2011. Basically, they discovered that the visual cortex can be overwhelmed by objects not relevant to the task at hand, making it harder to distribute one’s attention and complete tasks efficiently. In other words: when there’s a lot of clutter around, your brain has a hard time focusing because your visual field is full of stuff that has nothing to do with what you’re trying to accomplish. There’s simply too much going on at once, and your brain becomes overwhelmed. (As someone who already has ADHD, I’d say this is true times a million)
Clutter also signals to our brains that our work isn’t done yet, causing feelings of stress and guilt. Not to mention, we’re prevented from finding what we need because it’s buried in a mess we have to spend time digging through. This on top of the inability to focus on what needs to get done can obviously result in an enormous amount of anxiety.
In her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo says that the reasons for holding onto clutter can be boiled down to just two: An attachment to the past, or a fear for the future. She says if something does not spark joy, it needs to go. This book is a favorite of mine, and I can’t recommend it enough. I bought my copy online for cheap, like most of my books.
Decor & Other Environmental Factors
It’s important to feel comfortable in the environment you spend most of your time in. Spending most of your time in a home where the water or air quality is poor, where there are bad smells, or even lighting that’s a bit off can be a definite cause of stress. Little things like this can factor heavily into our overall quality of life. We may not even recognize a bad smell or dim lighting as the source of our anxiety, but it really could be as simple as that!
Another of my all time favorite books is called Living a Beautiful Life, and it’s written by Alexandra Stoddard. She writes beautifully and offers such an elegant and unique perspective on how life should be lived. In the book she talks about how important it is to create a beautiful living space that makes you feel happy, because a huge percentage of our lives are spent at home. She starts the first chapter of the book off with a quote from Samuel Johnson:
“To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labor tends…”
Our brains secrete neurochemicals as we experience our environments. Things such as pattern, texture and color all have an effect on what neurochemicals are being secreted. If we interpret our environment to be chaotic and over stimulating, the brain will secrete adrenaline which causes our bodies to be on high alert. But if we interpret the environment to be relaxing our brains will secrete GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps reduce anxiety.
Even the color of our walls can be a hidden factor when it comes to stress and anxiety. Jerry Cao mentions colors that can cause anxiety in his article titled 12 Colours and the Emotions they Evoke. He writes,
“Yellow is a strange colour: it is often associated with happiness, but also activates the anxiety centre of the brain. Like red and orange, it’s able to stimulate and revitalise – it’s the colour of warning signs and taxis – but use bright yellow sparingly because of the potential negative connotations.”
Your home should be your sanctuary.
The place you can retreat to when the world is too much. If your home is also too much, you’ll have no sanctuary. And having no sanctuary is a pretty good cause for anxiety, especially if you’re an introvert like me. Sometimes we don’t have much control over the state of our homes. My mom didn’t have much control over my room when I was growing up, and that probably drove her nuts. Maybe you’re still living at home with your parents and they’re the ones who are a total mess.
If you have a space to call your own, even if it’s only half a bedroom you share with your sister, you can create a space of organized calm. It just takes a little effort and the self control to keep up with it. The book by Marie Kondo that I mentioned earlier is a great place to start if you need help organizing your living space. You can get it for about ten bucks on Amazon: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
Maybe I’m just one of those people who is way too obsessed with cleanliness (like I said, I’m a reformed Pack Rat), but this book was a page turner for me. It’s kind of weird to call a non-fiction book a page turner, but this one was just that awesome.
If you found this article interesting you’ll probably enjoy the next part in the Causes of Anxiety series. I’ll be talking about your relationships and the ways they could be causing you anxiety. My goal in publishing this series is to make you aware of the things you may not have considered to be impacting your Anxiety, which will hopefully make it easier for you to find appropriate solutions. I’m really looking forward to sharing all of this with you and I hope you get a lot out of it.
Until Next Time,
Keep Calm and Grow On
Coming up Next: Are your Relationships causing you Anxiety?