When Anxiety Interferes with Decluttering

How to Cope When Anxiety Interferes with Decluttering Progress
Clutter and anxiety often go hand in hand.
It’s a frustrating reality, but the link between clutter and anxiety is really no surprise. Clutter is a major stress for many.

  • It reminds us of all the things that need to be finished
  • It makes us feel like we will never just be done
  • It makes us feel guilty (why did we let it get like this?) and embarrassed (when somebody stops by unexpectedly!)
  • It interferes with our ability to focus
  • It makes it difficult to find things when we need them
  • It makes it hard to relax
  • It leaves us feeling overwhelmed

And according to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, it’s especially true for women.

What are you to do in those moments when anxiety takes over?

The moments when you’re trying to make progress, and all you want is to be free from the clutter. But suddenly you feel swallowed by it all, and anxiety rears its ugly head. Progress is halted.
You can’t proceed, even though you want to. It feels irrational; you logically know what you should do. But in that moment, you just can’t. You can barely take a breath.
Although it feels like it might, it won’t last forever. You’ll work through the anxiety, and you’ll make progress once again. Chances are it will resurface from time to time. But with some strategies to help you cope, it will get easier to manage.

First, remember to breathe.

When you start to feel anxious, you’re not breathing effectively! There are breathing strategies you can practice that will help you when that moment hits.
When we’re under stress or in an emergency, we start breathing faster and taking shallow breaths from the upper lungs-this is how hyperventilating starts. Instead, we need to breathe deeply, through the lower lungs.
To practice this you can try these three methods:
Natural breathing: This is how we should naturally breathe, although we often don’t. With natural breathing, inhaling normally through the nose, and taking gentle and slow breaths fill the lower lungs. Practice gently and slowly inhaling; then exhale. Focus on filling the lower lungs.
Calming breath: This involves breathing through the nose with a long, slow breath, first filling your lower lungs, then your upper lungs. Count to 3 while holding your breath, then exhale slowly through pursed lips, while relaxing the muscles in your face, jaw, shoulders, and stomach.
Calming counts: Find a comfortable place to sit. Take a long, deep breath, and exhale slowly while saying the word “relax” silently. Close your eyes. Take ten natural breaths, and count down each time you exhale. Pay attention to any tensions in your jaw or face, for example. Imagine them relaxing. After ten breaths, open your eyes.

Secondly, remember faulty thinking patterns are at play

Once you get your breathing under control, or even as you’re breathing, you can begin to assess your thinking patterns.
“Although the thoughts and feelings of anxiety and panic are all too real, the brain is being tricked into thinking that you are somehow in danger — when actually you are not. Part of effective therapy includes realizing this, and slowly changing ingrained thought patterns.” Dr. Thomas Richards
It begins to feel like it all has to be done right at that moment, or it will never get done. And it won’t be okay. That’s just not true.
We have lifetime patterns and predispositions in place, and it takes time and persistence to replace our habits. We need to remember that the clutter in our homes is not going to be conquered overnight-unless you want to take a drastic approach and have a “packing party” like Ryan Nicodemus of The Minimalists.
For most of us, even if that sounds like a great idea, it’s likely too radical for our family members. (But you can always box and label items, and clear out one peaceful space in your home).
One day at a time, focusing on one area at a time, it will get done. One day you’ll look up and wow yourself by how far you’ve come.

Anxiety helps:

  • Breathe and identify any faulty thinking
  • Take a break and get out of the house to clear your thoughts
  • Get some support. A friend, your family, a professional organizer, a Facebook community of people who “get” it, or a counselor. You are not alone
  • Spend some time free-writing
  • Remember to practice self-care. Some ideas:
    • Give walking or running a try on a regular basis
    • Spend some time in nature
    • Diffuse calming essential oils
  • Focus on creating one peaceful area in your home, then expand from there
  • Do the basics: everything feels better when the dishes are done and dinner is planned

Do you have methods that help you? Please share in a comment below.

About Rachel Jones

Hi there! I’m Rachel Jones, and I founded Nourishing Minimalism in 2012 at the beginning of my minimalist journey. If you're looking for encouragement in your journey, I created a FREE Facebook Group - feel free to join me there: Nourishing Minimalism Facebook Group and I share videos each week on YouTube


  1. Joanie on 03/29/2017 at 2:00 pm

    Just what i needed to Read today as i start to tackle my home office that is out of CONTROL! Thank you!

  2. lindamarie on 03/29/2017 at 4:02 pm

    Thanks for the reminder. I saw my therapist yesterday & happened to mention I still had not thrown out flowers i received on valentines day — even though they have been dead for a good while. She sent me home to do it before anything else!
    It is good when we have someone in our life to give us a gentle push when we need it.

    • Mary on 04/12/2017 at 12:59 pm

      I had problems throwing away gifts and flowers too – this year – when the flowers were fresh – I took a photo to save – then i felt better when it was time to throw out the flowers – i still had the photo of them.
      I find that listening to some good music can also be very helpful when throwing out things – keeps my spirits up.

  3. Angela on 03/29/2017 at 4:59 pm

    your articles are so helpful.
    •Take a break and get out of the house to clear your thoughts
    This! Often I find that it’s just the day, some days I can look around and be proud of my progress, be motivated to sort things, and sometimes it all feels too much so I need to step away.

  4. Jess on 03/29/2017 at 6:09 pm

    I find the best way to tackle anxiety around decluttering is to box stuff up. if it’s still in the box at the end of 30 days, it goes. usually after a week I realize I never use that stuff anyway so I decide to get rid of it sooner – like there was nothing to be anxious about in the first place!

  5. Janelle Schaffner on 04/03/2017 at 6:42 am

    This is so relevant for me. it can be so discouraging when all progress that was made in a period of ability is wiped away during a period of anxiety and I am constantly starting over at square one. On the other hand, I don’t know what else to do but just keep moving forward.

    • Jan Horwood on 08/05/2017 at 1:28 pm

      A period of ability vs a period of anxiety. That’s brilliant, it exactly describes my reality, which I’ve always had trouble putting into words. Thank you!

  6. jessica williams on 04/19/2017 at 5:57 pm

    Brilliant post. So many share this issue. Thank you for sharing! I have REPINED so I can go back to it and keep reminding myself. I am decluttering obsessed.

  7. Bird Lover on 07/25/2017 at 11:15 pm

    I saw your site today and it was so comforting to find others who deal with this issue. For me it has been a lifelong issue of feeling helpless and ashamed. I have friends who have such beautiful clean houses, but I never want them to visit. I actually have a creative side, but clutter keeps me from doing the things I love most. Because there are so many things I want to do, I have lots of stuff that I save…fabrics, all sorts of supplies, art materials, soap making supplies, essential oils, just to name a few things. I also have antiques and collections and things that have been passed down. Because of this, I feel I can’t be a minimalist in the true sense of the word because there is more to life than a pristine house. For me it is finding a balance. There is definitely way too much stuff around that I can live without. Paper clutter is probably at the top of the list, followed by clothes we don’t wear, and dishes and utensils we don’t use. I estimate it will take a year to get things under control if I can do it at all, but at least I have a goal and am glad to know I am not alone.

    • Stacy Arnold on 02/24/2018 at 8:35 pm

      Yes I feel exactly the same plus I am getting older and can’t always physically do it or for very long. Then there’s the problem with doing one thing or area at a time, that doesn’t work for me cause it’s like a chain reaction, to do this I gotta do that to do that…etc..etc

      • Susie on 02/28/2018 at 4:51 am

        Me too! That chain reaction! I want to do X. But first, I have to go do V…but before that, U. By the time I’ve finished R, S and T, I’m exhausted and no longer give a flying flip about X. Indeed I may not even remember X at all!

        • Jessica on 10/31/2018 at 8:21 am

          Exactly! Well said…Thanks!

    • Kara on 09/18/2019 at 2:29 am

      I’m so much like you. It’s as if I could have written this post myself. Feeling hope to declutter and find my peaceful home knowing I’m not alone. ❤️

    • Triggerjames14 on 03/07/2020 at 5:35 pm

      Not alone. I can relate to your post😉😇🙏 hope that you’re making progress. Made me feel not so ashamed. I’m making progress. Feels overwhelming and scary. Things ppl give you, you feel bad getting rid of , what if they ask about it. I have a few family members whom are hunters of things so to speak, and go to the free store, the dump, goodwill etc and bring back things , very proud. Yet there is no cap. They will fill the car with trash go to the dump and come home with the suv packed, no room. This is weekly. Things we don’t need. Large old pieces of furniture. (Large, seems always big stuff, now that I’m saying it) Pictures, when there is no wall space, dirty old carpets. Doors, windows, kitchen sinks, I’m not sure what is happening, clothing!!!! I’m taking about hoarding at its finest. It’s frustrating. I Personally have clothing, But they will bring me more, they won’t stop. Then I feel bad when they say oh well you can just throw it out if you don’t like it. I never needed or wanted it, but I feel guilted into holding onto items I won’t wear, maybe once. I’m trying to part with item from others, mostly. I have soooooooooo much! I literally could open up a thrift shop! Insane. I have a few trash bags ready in my hands to start bagging up this stuff. Then slowly start to drop off at goodwill👍 I just hope that these item don’t find their way back to me. 😂 wish me luck. I also have tools everywhere. My yard is a nightmare, if you can imagine these large items outside by my shed. What my neighbors think😬. I want a “Martha Stewart” home.

      • G on 02/28/2021 at 9:11 pm

        I have been at it all day yesterday and today. I was feeling the anxiety pinch. So I left to eat out at my favorite seafood place. And while waiting for my order I came across your website. And it says get out of the house. It’s working. I know I can go home to finish now

  8. Jason McFadden on 10/09/2017 at 2:45 pm

    I’m a Dad of 5 boys. My wife homeschools. We live in a small old house. It’s cluttered! And I have lots of stress and anxiety. Thanks for sharing this post. Good tips and links too. Side note: I journal and it helps with my anxiety, to get the thoughts out of my head a bit.

  9. Shellee Wadsworth on 04/04/2018 at 7:32 pm

    Thank you so much for this article. I found it so much more helpful than wearing red, washing my hands after and pulling up my hair so negative energy doesn’t get caught in it. Yikes! I’m so glad to know that I’m not the only one who gets overwhelmed, and am stuck in that vicious cycle. Prayerfully it is ending TODAY! Thanks again!

  10. Bird Lover on 04/22/2018 at 1:15 pm

    I so enjoy reading the posts of others. Susie’s post really struck a chord…can’t do X until you do Y and on and on. I had thought the one room at a time approach was the way to go, but recently I heard about a new approach from someone who is having great success. It’s a one category at a time approach. Paper clutter, books, magazines, clothing, dishes, utensils, collections, etc. I have decided that with God’s help I will work on maintaining the basics each day (laundry, kitchen, meals, beds, etc.) and choose one category and work on that till it’s done. I think I am choosing the paper clutter since it vexes me the most and comes in daily. There’s an old saying, “You can’t take it with you.” Hey, that’s a good thing! 😁

  11. Deborah Rushing on 09/23/2018 at 5:42 am

    I have found some of these ideas helpful. I have def been in the clutter-anxiety cycle but this is new the last couple of years. We had to put all our collected stuff in storage (2) units as we were moving in with my dad to help him. He had lived in the same house for fifty years and wouldn’t leave. During this time I became very ill with a bad infection and was in the hospital and rehab for six months. While I was out of the home and my husband was unable to work because my girls have multiple handicaps. After Dad passed we moved into three bedroom condo. We had lost the two storage units because we couldn’t pay the charges. I hold on to everything now because I lost so much. I have like a phobia about decluttering and can’t get rid of anything. Any ideas?

    • Katie on 10/20/2019 at 1:06 am

      You should take a moment to deal with the trauma and realize that what you lost at that time was just stuff. You have your family and your life, so you should talk to a therapist about that ‘stuff’. You will come through the other side knowing that you are more than the clutter in your life.

  12. Lizzy Jean on 10/09/2018 at 4:17 pm

    I so needed this today…needing back surgery and having 2 knee replacements and a heart problem..seems my mind is also cluttered..like someone stated u start to do one thing and then your mind floats to something else to do and in between times u have to sit down with ice on your back then get up and try to start again…I am bipolar and panic disorder and all this clutter makes things much worse..I feel so lost/useless and spouse DOES NOT LIKE that I cannot keep up with things..I wish he would consider there is a reason I’m on disability he thinks I’m just lazy..doesn’t understand this vicious cycle

  13. Barbara on 04/04/2019 at 12:34 am

    Wow, so many different struggles and travels in the world of our stuff! It’s all so individual and personal on this journey (that may never end…), but we can each take heart, and make our own progress one day, one item, one category, one space at a time.
    Be strong, don’t feel like you’re failing and don’t become too overwhelmed. If I can’t ACT on a particular day or with a particular group of items, I switch to READING about other people’s journeys, prayers for them, and feel THAT was a good accomplishment for my time that day.
    In 3 years I went from a 3 bedroom house with 2 full attics and a full basement, to a 2 bedroom condo with 12 storage boxes of pictures left to go. I’m stuck trying to get through the pictures, but I’ll get there, I’ll get through them.
    Don’t leave it all for someone else to go through – get it done and ENJOY your freedom!

  14. Sunshine Morales on 04/05/2019 at 9:40 pm

    I am really down on myself today, since my eldest son passed 10 yrs. ago, forever 28. Then I was diagnosed with Inflammatory breast cancer, I have become so disorganized, it is pitiful. My physical ailments, will not even let Me mop floors anymore, or clean the tile in the bathroom, and my 2 sons that live with are no help. I ask them to help, I tell them we need the floors mopped, bathroom walls/tiles cleaned, lawn mowed in backyard, but goes in one ear and out the other. Now I will just pay someone, hopefully I can trust to help clean, and especially do the lawn in backyard. I am having a very bad day & need to vent, sorry because it is nobody’s fault but my own. Don’t like myself very much right now. My boyfriend of 13 yrs. left 5 yrs. ago, because he had a stroke, and then became addicted to pain pills. Or for reasons he only knows…Usually I am pretty upbeat, I am a Catholic & a Lecture on Sundays. Every once in a while I get in this funk, harder & harder to get out of…

    • Rachel Jones on 04/06/2019 at 9:01 pm

      I’m sorry Sunshine. I hope you get some help soon. ❤️

  15. Martin on 09/13/2019 at 2:39 pm

    I’m glad I’m not alone. I’ve had decorating done in various rooms and in order for them to do it, I’ve had to mega clutter a couple of rooms. My mum, who also lived here, departed on her holiday to Heaven a year ago and in addition to the decorating stuff, there’s seemingly a couple of centuries-worth of interesting artefacts which are interesting but of little practical use. I don’t feel on the one hand inclined to chuck them but on the other, I feel I need twice the space I already do in the house. Even the small sessions of going through stuff seems to induce anxiety. Frustrating.

  16. Erin Moore on 12/23/2019 at 11:53 am

    Hey all im struggling with the clutter free corner of my dining room. i have a totally free corner, floor, walls and it looks bare. i know i have a long way to go but right now my thoughts are saying if i keep going my house will lose its personality and this wont feel like its my place anymore. i have thoroughly enjoyed bargain hunting from all over but realise looking for hobby items and doung the hobby are 2 seperate hobbies

  17. Shaiza Ali Shan on 07/13/2020 at 5:56 pm

    Just moved into new place a day before.
    Already suffering from anxiety disorder and panic attacks, this was a brave step to take.
    Stacked all stuff in one room. Did a thorough cleaning the first day and then started proper cleaning and unpacking, cleaning, unpacking and organizing. We’re almost half done today.
    This place has no storage spaces at all except kitchen, which we didn’t realize while choosing this place ( silly af).
    It was my second morning here today and anxiety took over seeing the cluttered room where all the boxes are placed.
    It’s quite difficult to figure out where to start.
    My husband did the laundry in the morning and I just got done with the kitchen cleaning and organizing.
    Now he’s gone to get the dinner ready for us and I’m moving to get the washroom done properly and take a bath and hopefully we’ll have a peaceful dinner afterwards.
    You’re right. Doing things one by one and decluttering and organizing will get your nerves to calm everytime you’re done with something.
    Taking it slow and not getting myself overdone at a time.
    Thanks for reminding me the breathing strategies. I almost forget it every anxious time.

  18. Mark V Gillis on 05/23/2022 at 8:25 am

    I noticed that the majority of these posts are from women. Well, I’m a guy with these same issues but I have one roadblock…. My wife, the Clutteress. Love her but we are at the point now where clutter is everywhere. Worse, it does not bother her. I’m not big on arguing so clutter it is. In order to free her up from too many things to do I do my own laundry, I do the dishes, vacuum, and of course all of the outside chores. I also take care of 75% of all of our bills. The clutter has produced so much anxiety that there are days I cannot even function. If I even attempt to de clutter it’s WWIII It’s even entered our freezer! Lord knows what’s stuffed in the back!
    What’s worse is that the TV and cell phone games seem to take priority over most everything.
    Help me ladies!

    • Rachel Jones on 05/24/2022 at 9:52 am

      I’m sorry Mark, that’s really hard. I think the first thing to do would be counseling. You have to talk and share how things make you feel especially since you aren’t able to declutter without conflict. Ask for help from someone on the outside, and maybe even someone who can work with both of you as you declutter. Reach out to local therapists, they’ll be able to direct you to someone.

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