A Cup of Coffee: When Clutter Becomes Unhealthy

Welcome back! Last week, we learned about an old meditation technique called Qigong. If you missed this blog and would like to catch up, click HERE.

This week, we will be discussing clutter, and it’s impact on our health. Have you ever felt anxious or depressed because your house wasn’t tidy? Well you are not alone. Grab a Cup of Coffee and let’s chat!

We’ve all been there. You’ve had a hard week at work, maybe you have a case of the sniffles, and it’s really all you can do to get dinner on the table, get the kids to bed, and dig through the dryer, hoping there’s something in there you can wear to bed. Cleaning up your house is the last thing on your mind, and you just don’t care.

The weekend comes and goes, and nothing gets cleaned up or put away because, quite frankly, you just want to rest up for the week ahead of you. Putting things away can wait, right? The next weekend comes along, and you are so stir crazy from being sick, and not getting out of the house last weekend, that you decide the housework can wait…you are going to the beach this weekend! You have a great time, and get home the night before you have to do it all over again. You find some clean pajamas, and go to bed so you are fresh in the morning.

Suddenly, one day, you look around and you say, “0h my gosh…this place is a mess“, or your friend calls and says they are coming over, and you panic…this house needs to get cleaned up NOW. As you begin to clean, the frustration sets in. “Why do I have all these knick knacks? They just collect dust and create more work!“.

As you lie in bed that night, you look up the definition of “Knick Knack” and there it is…you knew it all along, but you couldn’t bring yourself to admit it. The definition is: “A small worthless object, especially a household ornament“. You lay there, your phone glowing in the dark, and the depression starts to sink in. You have a house full of “worthless objects“. You ask yourself, “Why? Why did I do this to myself?”

The answer to that question can be very complicated.

We all grew up “collecting” something. For me, it was glass figurines. My mama started me off by gifting me her glass Bambi and from there, my collection grew. My dad made me a cabinet and made it clear to me that once the cabinet was full, something would have to go if I were to want to put more figurines in the cabinet. This gave me a foundation of control, so that my “collecting” didn’t get out of hand. Take a moment and reflect on what it was that you collected. Maybe it was baseball cards, or Pogs. Maybe it was coins, Beanie Babies, or stamps. Whatever the collection, you most likely did this as a hobby, and it never became an obsession.

Sometimes, however, our collections turn into a compulsion. If we go shopping, we must buy something. The pleasure center of our brain tells us that we feel better after a little “retail therapy“. But is it the actual purchasing that makes us feel good, or the anticipation of the purchase that triggers that natural high?

Psychology Today reports that shopping online is a good example of the “fix” we get when we purchase items. “Robert Sapolsky is a neuroscientist who studies dopamine in the brain.  Many people think that dopamine is released when the brain receives a reward, but dopamine is actually released in anticipation of a reward. When you place an order for a product online, you don’t get the product right away. You have to wait. And in the waiting is anticipation.” In this respect, online shopping is more satisfying than in store shopping, because waiting for the package increases the anticipation, thus the pleasure.

So when does this dance with our dopamine start to impact our health? When does “collecting” turn into “hoarding“, and how do we end up crossing that line? The National Institute of Health reports:In 2012, a research team led by Dr. David Tolin of Hartford Hospital and Yale University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neural basis for hoarding disorder. They compared the brains of patients with hoarding disorder to patients with OCD and healthy controls as they decided whether to keep or discard possessions. The study was funded by NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

The researchers analyzed brain images of 43 hoarders, 31 people with OCD and 33 healthy controls. Participants were given 6 seconds to make a decision about whether to keep or discard junk mail that either belonged to them or to someone else. Participants later watched as the items they chose to discard were placed in a paper shredder. They were then asked to rate their emotions and describe how they felt during the decision-making tasks. The results appeared in the August 2012 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

The hoarders chose to keep more mail that belonged to them than those in the OCD or healthy control groups. Hoarders also took longer to make decisions and reported greater anxiety, indecisiveness and sadness than the other groups.

The imaging analysis revealed that hoarders differ from both healthy controls and patients with OCD in 2 specific brain regions: the anterior cingulate cortex and insula. Scientists believe that these areas are part of a brain network involved in processing emotion. Both regions were more active in hoarders when they were making decisions about mail that belonged to them, but less active when making decisions about mail that didn’t belong to them.

These results suggest that hoarders’ decisions about possessions are hampered by abnormal activity in brain regions used to identify the emotional significance of things. ‘They lose the ability to make relative judgments, so the decision becomes absolutely overwhelming and aversive to them,’ Tolin says.”

Collecting items isn’t the same as feeling compelled to purchase for the relief you get when you receive the items, and feeling compelled to purchase isn’t the same as being unable to stop yourself from purchasing and collecting. Remember in paragraph four when I said this could be complicated? There you have it. Only a qualified practitioner can determine if our “collecting” has become unhealthy for us, or those around us.

If your collecting was once fun, but now causes you embarrassment, anxiety, or creates depression, and you struggle to make the needed changes on your own, then see your doctor. We all deserve to feel healthy and happy, and if your material possessions are robbing you of those feelings, then it’s time to dig a little deeper.

Here’s a light hearted, but oh so true, video for your entertainment..



  1. In answer to the “clutter” question, it isn’t that I keep cluttering. It’s a question on when the hell do I find the time to clean things up?
    After dealing with household-cleaning hiring for my aging mother, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t trust ANYONE other than myself to clean my clutter up.
    So if anyone can find me a mini-TARDIS so I can find myself some time and space, I’d be such a happy girl.

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