Clutter and disorganization happen to everyone. But sometimes it can be a sign of depression.

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Having a messy room is not uncommon. Having a busy schedule can lead to chores piling up. But sometimes, a cluttered room, particularly if you’re typically organized, can be a sign of something deeper.

That is, letting dirty dishes sit for an hour or two while you finish that Netflix series is A-OK. But leaving the dishes to pile up for days (or even weeks) on end can lead to feelings of overwhelm and may even be connected to mental health conditions.

Research from 2020 has shown a link between messy rooms and depression. Signs of depression may include a lack of motivation, leading to an unkempt space.

A 2016 study found a strong connection between clutter and depression among people who experience hoarding.

But how does clutter contribute to depression, how does depression lead to clutter, and can messiness perpetuate depressive episodes?

Depression can make it hard to concentrate, take care of yourself, and get things done.

Keeping up with tasks, such as tidying up or doing laundry, is difficult if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression.

“Living with depression can make it feel really, really challenging to do a lot of things, [and] keeping a living space clean may be just one of those,” says Gaby Teresa, associate marriage and family therapist at Kindman & Co. in Los Angeles.

“Going about your daily routine, which comes naturally to some, tends to feel nearly impossible to someone experiencing depression,” Teresa says.

So, tidying up seems like an insurmountable task when you’re experiencing common signs of depression, such as:

  • decreased energy
  • fatigue
  • lack of interest
  • feeling overwhelmed

Lack of motivation: A common symptom

Depression often manifests itself through a lack of motivation. Feeling this way means it can “take significantly more energy and effort to accomplish small tasks — like tidying your space,” Teresa says.

But when it comes to depression, a lack of motivation doesn’t relate only to messy living spaces. It can also lead to losing interest in activities once enjoyed, such as socializing with friends and participating in hobbies. Someone might even lose motivation to maintain personal hygiene.

That is, you might wantto engage in certain actions but simply don’t have the emotional or physical energy to do so.

“There can be a lot of shame tied to mess,” Teresa says. “My clients who experience depression sometimes say they feel inadequate when they struggle with daily tasks that come so easily to others.”

There seems to be a link between messy living spaces and depression. But does a bedroom overflowing with laundry exacerbate symptoms more acutely? The impact of messiness varies between people, according to Teresa.

“Some people may feel quite comfortable with clutter or mess. For others, living in a mess may feel completely out of character and only occur when they are experiencing a depressive ‘episode,’” she says.

However, “if you find yourself saying, ‘My house would be so clean if I weren’t so depressed…’, chances are that the messiness does affect your depressive symptoms.”

Studies suggest that feeling surrounded by chaos can affect mental health. A 2016 study says that clutter harms overall well-being.

Research from 2020 found high levels of household disorganization in families led to poor cognitive, behavioral, and communication outcomes among adults and children. And a 2017 study found that an accumulation of clutter due to procrastination can lead to a large decrease in levels of life satisfaction.

UCLA researchers have also found a link between household clutter and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Excess cortisol is linked with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.

If depression and untidiness are connected, can tidying up things make you feel better?

“If mess occurs exclusively with your depression, making steps to clean can feel hopeful,” Teresa says. “It can remind you that you are capable of doing hard things and promote feelings of accomplishment and capability which in turn, begin to improve your mood.”

However, on the flip side, “chances are if you do feel depressed but are used to mess, then trying to tackle it may not have the same positive impact,” Teresa says. “Instead, it might be better to prioritize caring for yourself in a way that does feel good.”

But cleaning up and its result can help improve your mood, according to Maggie Holland, a Washington-based licensed mental health counselor at Choosing Therapy.

“The finished product can give you some much-needed serotonin and endorphin hits (happy, reward brain chemicals),” Holland says.

There are steps you can take to help you manage depression and clutter.

Start small

When faced with a lot of clutter, you may be unsure how to start managing it.

“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged, which results in not trying at all,” Teresa says.

So, begin by taking small steps. Ease yourself in rather than trying to go full force.

“Take baby steps toward cleaning it,” Holland suggests. “Once you get started, it’s also more likely that you’ll keep going.”

Track your progress

Noting your achievements, however big or small, can remind you to make headway and do your best. And that’s what counts.

“Start with one small piece to clean as your goal,” Holland says, “and then celebrate and praise yourself when you accomplish that.”

Give yourself grace

When managing symptoms of depression and a messy room, “try to practice some self-compassion,” Teresa recommends.

“If you’re reading this and sitting in a messy room, you are not a failure. Your body is trying so hard to keep you going, and it’s exhausted!” she says. “That’s not your fault or a personal shortcoming — just the reality of navigating depression.”

Ask for a helping hand

If you live with a partner or family members, having them tidy with you for 10 minutes could be just what you need.

Sometimes, the prospect of a task can be more daunting than actually doing it, but having an ally to help manage your depression can make a real difference.

With extra pairs of hands getting to work, you’ll make progress even faster, and seeing the difference you’re making can motivate you.

People with depression can often find themselves living in messy spaces. This is because feelings of hopelessness, low energy, and lack of motivation can make it hard to keep on top of everyday tasks, such as tidying.

“Seeing a messy space can bring up feelings of guilt, which can further immobilize a person and send them into a spiral of negative thoughts,” Holland says.

Rather than feeling shame or guilt, you can show yourself some compassion. You could take things slowly and in manageable chunks.

As with all things in life, it’s OK to ask for help — and this includes managing and coping with your depression — however it manifests.

If you’re looking for a therapist but unsure where to start, Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.