Anxiety and Organization

Let’s talk about anxiety and organization. January is GO Month (Get Organized Month), but you don’t always feel like you’ve got a lot of get up and go in you, right? Deciding to get organized on your own, or calling in a professional organizer, is a brave and healthy thing…but it’s not always easy.

Anxiety and Organization

Anxiety and Organization

What are Anxiety, Depression, Stress, Low Motivation?

The best definition of anxiety might be from the Barbie movie. Barbie says, “I’ve started to get all these weirdo feelings, like I have fear with no specific object. What is that?” A passing woman responds, “Anxiety. I have it, too.”

Anxiety isn’t depression or stress  or low motivation, but it can be related to other mental health conditions, or it can stand alone.

Is there Another Way to Look at Anxiety?

I have teens, and I’ve noticed how everyone in this generation talks about having anxiety as if it’s a given. In a way, it is, because anxiety is a normal human condition, just like hunger and thirst. And just like hunger and thirst, we can take steps to manage our personal, physical, and mental needs. Having anxiety doesn’t have to be a medical diagnosis or a permanent condition.

A recent WHYY podcast featured Harvard University psychologist David Rosmarin sharing from his new book, Thriving with Anxiety. One of the eye-openers in this show was the distinction of stress versus anxiety. Stress is a measurable event. If I leave late for an appointment that starts in 8 minutes and have a 20 minute drive, then I have 12 minutes of stress ahead of me. Once that stressful period passes, I may still have adrenaline to deal with for a bit, but my body will eventually recover from that stress.

Rosmarin wants us to see anxiety as a normal human condition, but a misfire of the fight/flight/freeze system that is the healthy response to fear. Anxiety senses fear when there isn’t real fear in the current moment. Please note, as he says, there are times when real threats to occur, and when real violence can leave the imprint of PTSD. If that is your situation, please seek help and don’t suffer in silence.

As he says, “we have become anxious about our anxiety,” which causes us to feel less than or seek medical attention. Rosmarin says he’s done trying to stop being anxious. Instead, he’s now trying to get folks to embrace their anxiety, and use it to address their environment, opportunities, and growth potential. He’s hoping people don’t get stuck…which is often what we hear from our organizing clients.

How can Organization Address Anxiety?

One of my favorite studies is the one from researchers at the University of California-LA that quantifies that women have higher cortisol levels if they perceive their home as disorganized. Cortisol levels are elevated the entire time they are in the cluttered home environment. Cortisol is the hormone that indicates the presence of stress. Women in the study reported being stressed at home when their home felt cluttered.

Holiday storage: before

Anxiety and Organizing - holiday storage, before


Our environments absolutely do impact our mental state, even when we don’t consciously notice it. University health programs acknowledge that organization is an important skill for young adults. You may not believe that a cluttered desk equals a cluttered mind, but people do report feeling more at ease in an organized room and home. When we are less anxious, other bodily systems tend to work better, like sleep. A survey points to people with clean sheets on a newly-made bed reporting that they sleep better. When we are well nourished, well-rested, and well-hydrated, we are better able to organize a chaotic world, or at least the corner of the world that we inhabit.

When we take steps to organize, we are taking back control of our environment.

Being in control of our space makes us feel satisfied.

Being more satisfied leads to a focus on other activities and interests, which can lead to less anxiety.

It doesn’t take much to exert your dominance over your environment. You can start with a very small organizing target, like a junk drawer or a nightstand surface.

Holiday storage, after:

Anxiety and Organizing - holiday storage, after


Don’t Do This for Anxiety

Even though I’ve showing a picture of bins and shelves above, I’m going to give you one big caution: don’t go on a bin buying spree to fight anxiety or depression. Buying supplies you need to get and stay organized is STEP 4 of SORT and Succeed. If you buy random organizing supplies before you’ve gotten organized, you are likely to make your clutter even more overwhelming, as you end up storing air, and feeling even less sure of what goes where.

You probably already have everything you need to get organized, including bins, boxes, and shelves.

Organize first. 

Buy organizing supplies after.

What if I Don’t Feel Motivated?

People often feel like they have to get motivated to get organized, but it’s actually the other way around. If you are a runner, you might recognize that you get the dopamine hit after you start running, not when you are considering leaving your cozy house for a chilly run.

Your body is like, “Show me the money!” It wants to see the activity first, then it gives up the feel-good chemicals.

That’s why there is no “M” in SORT and Succeed. Getting motivated isn’t one of the five steps. SORT and Succeed is an action-based approach to organizing that doesn’t require you to feel like organizing. Block the time. Pick you project. Define it with five words or less, and follow the next three steps to get results. Step 5 of SORT and Succeed allows you to choose and enjoy a reward for you organizing progress. Your anxiety isn’t giving you any rewards, now is it?

Organizing is physical activity. You can burn calories, change your brain chemistry, and lower anxiety with organization.

Don’t believe me? I’m ok if you want to prove me wrong. 🙂 Just give it a try today and let me know if you feel just a teensy bit better, more motivated, and less anxious tomorrow.

No matter when you found us, catch up with all of this month’s organizing articles here.