The Surprising Health Benefits of a Clean Closet

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Liz Calka)

Have you ever noticed that stepping into your cluttered, messy closet makes you stressed? Understatement of the day? Well, you’re not alone. It turns out that exposure to a greater density of “stuff” – like a jam-packed closet – can lead to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Assistant professor of psychology Darby Saxbe, Ph.D., worked on an intriguing study at UCLA where married, dual-income couples gave researchers a video tour of their home. The words the people used to describe their spaces were counted and assigned to two categories. One category was defined by stressful terms; that included words like clutter, mess, chaos, overload, and renovation. The other was restorative, with terms including calm, soothing, and outdoor spaces like yard. Then for several days participants had their cortisol levels measured throughout the day.

Whereas normally cortisol levels start higher when we wake up and drop throughout the day, Saxbe explains, they found that the women who used the clutter/stress words to describe their homes had less of a cortisol drop (not so for the men, which is a whole other story). They also found that women with higher stressful home scores had “increased depressed mood over the course of the day, whereas women with higher restorative home scores had decreased depressed mood over the day.”

Basically, if they were stressed out by their cluttered houses, this hormone that the Mayo Clinic says can wreak havoc on your mind and body stayed higher, and they were more depressed. Their messes – or, to be more accurate, their perception of and pre-occupation with their messes based on the words they were using – literally made them less healthy.

Want to know more? Check out this book and video series that grew out of the research.

While Saxbe points out that it was a small sample of only 30 couples so we shouldn’t over-interpret it, it only makes sense. I, for one, could literally feel my blood pressure heating up every time I set foot in my over-stuffed closet – one of TWO, and the only one you can step in, in our entire house.

As part of my goals for 2018, I stripped my closet to bare bones and did a reset on my wardrobe, working with stylist Laurel Kinney to streamline my clothing situation. (I also painted the drab space for good measure). I moved the boots (#Ihavethisthingwithboots!) from upper shelves where they were crowded together to a neat line in front of the fireplace. The closet, see, is in a room of its own because: Victorian house — so I opted to dub the under-used sitting room a dressing room. Finally I sent anything not related to getting dressed to the attic to further clear the clutter. I mean does anyone really need their tax paperwork from pre-Y2K, and all their suitcases in their closet?

By the time I was finished with this project my closet was a clean, airy space with plenty of breathing room between items of clothing. I hung fairy lights for fun, finally (after being a grown-up for how many years?) bought a real chest of drawers for underthings, and stashed a bottle of

The Laundress

Of course I can’t measure my cortisol, but there’s no need. Breathing easier, even smiling, at the start of the day, and later when I return my clothes or hang up laundry (because now that it’s so nice I’m motivated to keep it that way!) makes the whole rest of the day at least one click nicer.

Of course another path to better health is to just not let the mess stress us out. If you figure that one out, let me know!