After months of dealing with the chaotic clutter in my apartment, I finally got organized and helped ease my anxiety in the process.

By Erin Reimel
November 04, 2020
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Credit: Susumu Yoshioka/Getty

Things have never felt so tumultuous than in the entire year of 2020 when apparently everything decided to hit the fan all at once. I thrive when I have control over my time, my social calendar, the remote control…you name it. And suddenly I’m working, living, and sleeping in my tiny apartment while the world outside is decidedly in chaos. Needless to say, it’s been a nightmare for a control freak like me.

Some days are better than others. I love working from home with my Brussels Griffon puppy cuddled up next to me. But other days are tough, and my anxiety gets amplified from the constant bombardment of bad and then worse news and not being able to see my family. And when my mental state goes a little off-center, so do my surroundings. Basically, my mental disorganization often manifests physically in the form of clutter...everywhere.

Anyone who walks into my apartment would be able to tell what’s going on in my head. Dishes done? Counters clean? Things are good. I wrapped up my work on time, had a good meal, and still had time to watch the latest episode of whichever reality show is airing while cleaning the kitchen during the commercials.

But when it’s not such a great day, my apartment looks like what my mother calls a “disaster area.” It’s not dirty, per se, but nothing is particularly tidy. Maybe unopened mail is piled up somewhere and all my shoes are strewn on the floor instead of carefully put away. It seems every day spent in social distanced isolation opens up the possibility of more anxiety-induced mess.

“When people experience anxiety, their nervous system is in a heightened state,” explains Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., CSAT-S, a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist. “This means you may feel more internally preoccupied with thoughts that may be obsessive or ruminative. And when this is the case, household or hygiene tasks can fall by the wayside.”

That latter bit could not be truer for me, and while it’s totally fine to let the floor go unswept (there are certainly bigger fish to fry right now), once it gets to a certain level of uncleanliness, it actually causes even more anxiety. “For neat people, a disorganized living space can add an extra layer of overwhelm to a mind that is already feeling anxious,” explains Balestrieri. “One of the most prominent elements for anxiety is feeling powerless, helpless, vulnerable, or out of control.” (Related: How Cleaning and Organizing Can Improve Your Physical and Mental Health)

The solution (at least, for me) was to get out of my own head and take action so I could not only feel better but regain a small sense of control — something everyone needs even more right now.

I started with my closet. I'd let it overflow, and it was now a constant source of anxiety that I would try to ignore each time I had to shove things in. I planned to get started organizing my closet one weekend when I knew my boyfriend would be out of the house, so I could have some alone time with the task at hand.

My first step: I pulled a Marie Kondo and took everything out of my closet and put it on my bed. The stress of just seeing it all sprawled out was almost too much at first, but there was no turning back now. I played season one of The Real Housewives of New York City in the background to help me chill, then separated my clothes into three piles: keep, donate, and try on — following stylist Anna DeSouza’s expert organizational steps.

The bigger the donation pile got, the better I felt. Having worn mostly sweatshirts and leggings this year, I paused, wondering if I'd ever have the chance to wear jeans or a dress again. I didn't let the negative thoughts spiral, though, so I made my decisions and kept going.

Each piece I decided to keep went back into my closet with care and sorted by category — something I also picked up from DeSouza. I moved on to my dresser and the storage bins under my bed that were overflowing with shoes. Before I knew it, I was onto the kitchen wiping out the cabinets and tossing expired canned goods and spices.

Over the next week or so, the shelving unit in my front hall, my medicine cabinet… each cluttered, neglected storage space was straightened up, and some of the weight of the stress I was carrying started to fade. (Related: Khloé Kardashian Reorganized Her Fridge, and It's the Stuff of Type-A Dreams)

Now, the space where I wake up, eat, work, exercise, socialize, and sleep — my little bubble where my boyfriend, dog, and I now spend nearly every moment is suddenly back in my control. I can breathe easier. The existential dread still rears its ugly head from time to time (hey, we're still in an election year and a pandemic), but I don’t have sweatshirts falling from above my head every time I open my closet, so that's a win! Ultimately, I have fewer little things, and therefore few things to stress me out, even if I still feel like I have very little control of what happens outside my apartment door.

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