Have you ever walked into a big warehouse store and immediately felt overwhelmed? I sometimes feel frozen in these places. There’s so much to look at. So many colors and details. It’s too much! I forget what I came in to buy and I want to leave as soon as I get what I came for…whatever it was.
In a much more subtle way, our homes can have a similar effect on us, and it turns out there’s a scientific reason why.
Psychologist Angela Kenzlowe recently appeared on the Today show to talk about why clutter makes us feel so bad.
“When we walk into a cluttered space, our brain is competing with everything we’re trying to see,” Kenzlowe said. “And so, when we have this clutter, often times it evokes fear because our brain isn’t quite understanding what it’s seeing. When we are afraid, our stress response, our flight-fight-freeze response, engages and when that engages, we have constant cortisol flooding our body.”
High levels of cortisol, which is the body’s main stress hormone, have been linked to all sorts of health problems like obesity and can be linked to long-term sensitivity to stress.
“Cortisol goes into the brain and stimulates the alarm center, the amygdala, and kills neurons in the hippocampus which, besides doing visual/spatial memory, also calms down the amygdala and calms down stress altogether,” explains Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness. “This mental experience of stress, especially if it’s chronic and severe, gradually changes the structure of the brain. So, we become aggressively more sensitive to stress.”
Hoarding items represents a fear of loss and fear of not having control. By continuing to hang onto to stuff we don’t need, we’re perpetuating a cycle of stress and fear.
“When we get rid of those things, our brain is able to see that our environment isn’t dangerous,” Kenzlowe said. “When we have less things competing for our brain’s processing information, we’re able to feel a little bit better and be able to have some joy and some peace because we’re not in that frustration mode.”