During the pandemic, you might have taken to cleaning your closets, purging expired items, and clearing out paperwork piled on your desk . I did the same and over the past month, I looked through my closet and donated suits that didn’t fit, organized paperwork that dated back years, and unloaded books I never plan to revisit. It served as a necessary reset: I’ve noticed when my desk is piled with paperwork and there is clutter in the corner of my closet, I feel an anxiousness that unsettles me. When I cannot identify the meaning behind these piles, I know it’s time to pare down.
I’ve adopted this approach for several years, and actively declutter my space to make it as minimalist as possible whenever I feel particularly shaky. This active purging has impacted my mental health in a positive way — so much so that cultivating this minimalist approach has turned into a lifestyle.
Here are six unexpected ways paring down can support your mental health, according to experts.
It eliminates decision fatigue.
By paring down your environment to the essentials, you reduce the likelihood that you’ll be overwhelmed by multiple choices. “The more stuff we own, the more small decisions we have to make as a result,” says Risa Williams , a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and management coach. “If you’re already juggling a busy schedule and multiple responsibilities, the amount of decisions you have to make each day related to ‘stuff’ in your house, might be causing your stress levels to rise.”
According to Williams, one of the most effective ways to pare things down happens before you even purchase a new item: She recommends people think about where something will live in their home permanently before buying it, and how much energy it will require to maintain. “Taking a small step to do this before you purchase something that will take up space in your house, can give you time to consider if you really need the new stuff or not,” she tells Apartment Therapy.
When I am at the store and am tempted to buy something, I ask whether this item represents a want or need. I make a point to circle the store a couple of times and then decide whether it is something I need and how it could potentially clutter my space. More often than not, the impulse to buy that one more thing passes — and both my wallet and home are happier for it.
It can help you avoid overstimulation.
In a world filled with social media feeds, phones, and computers, it’s easy to feel compelled to buy things you don’t need. But that impulse, as well as “having too much stuff or trying to ‘live large’ is incredibly overstimulating for the mind,” says Tanya J. Peterson , a certified counselor and an official Diplomat of the American Institute of Stress . “The human brain is naturally drawn to a natural setting and is soothed by nature. Materialism runs counter to this natural inclination and contributes to a feeling of being anxious and on edge.”
According to Peterson, the pull between the need for the brain to be quiet and drive to buy more stuff presents a conflict. And that can contribute to a feeling of anxiety. The brain needs a break from processing information every now and again. Decluttering “creates a calm, serene environment for the brain to simply be. We feel more in control of ourselves and our world as a result,” Peterson tells Apartment Therapy.
It can help you tap into greater self-awareness.
As you move to streamline your home and work space, try to pay attention to what truly matters to your life and routine. “By practicing minimalism you begin to notice fillers on your schedule, in your home, or on your work to do list that are there to distract you from what you truly need to face,” licensed therapist Priscilla Chin notes. “You may notice that there are certain things you keep in your life in order to fill a void, to maintain a sense of self-worth, or to distract yourself from pursuing what you love because that can be risky and scary.”
As you declutter, Chin notes, you might be presented with some tough questions: Who am I without these objects? What is my value if I’m not filling my schedule with social activities? What do I do with myself and my time now? “Uncomfortable feelings that this clutter protected you from may now be more apparent, but now you have the opportunity, the time, and the space to figure out and address what’s important to you,” says Chin.
It can help you feel less overwhelmed.
Decluttering doesn’t always mean doing away with maximalist sensibilities, if that’s your decor style. But if you have a towering jumble of books, just looking at them can trigger a feeling of being overwhelmed. Maybe you meant to read them all and now don’t know where to start, or you’re worried they might topple over when you’re not looking.
“Our brains feel overwhelmed with processing everything in our environment. According to polyvagal theory, our nervous system engages in something called neuroception, which is the detection without awareness to scan for safety in our environments,” licensed psychotherapist Molly Zive tells Apartment Therapy. “If our environments have clutter, lack cohesion, or distract us, we may not feel safe and are unconscious to the lack of processing in our nervous system.”
If you’re a maximalist at heart, you don’t need to declutter everything — or adopt a monochrome palette. But by choosing exactly what you bring into your home, you can also create a sense of safety and knowing. “The paring down of objects creates intentional balance where you may feel like it is easier to breathe, function and live authentically,” says Zive.
You learn how to prioritize the moment.
Embracing minimalism isn’t always about physical things — sometimes living a more streamlined life means taking a breather rather than inundating yourself with tasks. “Once individuals identify how life is more simple and beautiful with minimalism, mindfulness, periods of silence and meditation, it can create a pattern of healthy behavior, thanks to neuroplasticity and rewiring of the brain,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, the medical director for Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, California. She adds that paring down your to-do list “helps individuals practice self-compassion and experience catharsis through mindfulness and breath,” Dr. Magavi tells Apartment Therapy. You also seek activities that prioritize the moment, like yoga, walking, and meditation.
… And you might save money in the process.
Whether you’re asking yourself if that new item is a “need” or a “want” before you take it to the register, or sell your newly-decluttered items at a garage sale, being mindful of your belongings can be kind to your wallet. “Obviously, the less you spend, the more financial security you gain, which helps decrease money worries,” Peterson tells Apartment Therapy. But she also warns against the impulse to seek “contentment outside of ourselves,” which is often a driving force behind the impulse to shop.
Instead, she recommends focusing on the happiness there is to be made “within ourselves and by simply being, rather than frantically trying to buy happiness.” Chances are, your bank account — and your peace of mind — will thank you.
Rudri Bhatt Patel
Rudri Bhatt Patel is a former attorney turned writer and editor. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Saveur, Business Insider, Civil Eats and elsewhere. She lives in Phoenix with her family.