You are an antelope: Why ancient history causes us to be stressed by clutter

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You’re an antelope. You’re scanning the horizon. You’re on the look out for lions. You can’t quite see what’s beyond the trees. Did that bush just rustle? Your breath quickens. You’re ready to run at any moment. Your system is flooded with adrenaline. It’s fight or flight time.

That’s what it’s like to live in a cluttered home.

Okay, okay, maybe comparing people with messy homes to anetlopes in mortal danger of being hunted by lions is too abstract. But it’s essentially the same kind of effect; if you’re stressed out by clutter, it’s because you are programmed by nature to be stressed out by clutter.

Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.

Bourg Carter, S. (2012)

Our ancestors actually DID have the same kind of experience as an antelope. They WERE in danger from predators and they WOULD have to scan the horizon to keep themselves safe.

And it’s this tendancy to scan for danger that causes us stress in the modern era. Not being able to see the horizon beyond the clutter feels dangerous to our cave-person minds. Instinctively, this causes us to feel stressed when we’re confronted with too much stuff at once.

Some people aren’t affected by clutter in this way. Maybe they’re better adapted to modern living. Yes, maybe they’re more evolved than I am. But there’s no doubt in my mind about the stress levels I personally feel rising when I’m surrounded by clutter.

The unpleasantness of clutter is as much, if not more, a psychological issue as it is a topic of home design. Clutter can be a matter of the mind. It can immobilize us. It can get in the way of clear thinking, even clear functioning. It can derail us when it becomes excessive.

Davis. H. (2012)

In Notes on a Nervous Planet Matt Haig discusses just how quickly the human race has developed; from wearing animal skins 50,000 years ago to developing civilisation in Mesopotamia. It’s just a 4,0000-year hop, skip and jump from the first money and alphabet to email and space travel.

Did social evolution really give ourselves enough time to adapt to the modern way of life? Or are we all really just experiencing our natural pre-civilisation urges to feel anxious when we scan the horizon?

Historically we had a natural need to belong to a social group or tribe, as this was crucial for our survival. Our brains therefore have a strong ability to spot things that don’t belong which, in this instance, could be all the things your eyes have spotted ‘on the horizon’.

Our limbic brain is powerful, powerful enough to drive behaviour that sometimes contradicts our rational and analytical understanding of a situation.

Sinek, S. (2009) p.57

If you’ve ever had a ‘gut feeling’ that something was wrong but you couldn’t tell what, that’s your limbic brain sparking into action. It’s irrational, but instinctual. That’s why you can sometimes feel ‘off’ when nothing seems to be wrong on the surface of it. And we tend to trust our gut instincts in a lot of situations don’t we? Especially in over-stimulating environments.

Introverts in particular can easily feel overstimulated. Psychologist Hans Eysenck (Chung, M. 2016) proposed that extroverts can cope with higher levels of stimulation and that intoroverts are more sensitive, therefore requiring low-key environments.

When we feel overloaded in a situation or environment, we can become anxious or even panic. Haig discusses the how overstimulating the modern world can be and the effect this can have on our mental health.

Panic is the product of overload. In an overloaded world we need to have a filter. We need to simplfy things. We need to disconnect sometimes… A kind of mental feng shui.

Haig, M. (2019) p.37

So, if you don’t want to feel stressed in your own home, panicked by an overload of belongings and under attack from your posessions, maybe now’s the time to streamline your stuff?

Chung, M. (2016) The Irresistable Introvert. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

Bourg Carter, S. (2012) Why Mess Causes Stress: 8 Reasons, 8 Remedies. [Online]. [Accessed 25th August 2020]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/high-octane-women/201203/why-mess-causes-stress-8-reasons-8-remedies

Davis, H. (2012) The Perils of Clutter. [Online]. [Accessed 25th August 2020]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/caveman-logic/201206/the-perils-clutter

Haig, M. (2019) Notes On A Nervous Planet. 2nd Edition. Edinburgh: Cannongate Books.

Sinek, S. (2009) Start With Why. London: Penguin.

The clutter of collections & letting them go

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About 10 days ago I watched a YouTube video that changed everything for me.

I’d been holding on to a childhood collection for years.

Decades.

Well, since my childhood. Which is over thirty years to be precise.

It’s moved house with me countless times. I’ve lugged that collection in-and-out of more vans than I care to remember.

Yet I never unpacked it.

I just kept that collection boxed up. But, importantly, it was with me.

You see, I thought it was a part of me. That the items in the collection made me the person I am. Considering it was a collection from my early formative years, that could very well be true.

But I’d rarely looked at it since becoming a teenager. The collection was boxed up in the loft of our family home. And then it moved to the loft of my own home. And to the next home. And the next.

I didn’t use it.

I didn’t enjoy it.

I didn’t even look at it.

And when I watched a video by Ronald L. Banks last week, I realised something.

I didn’t need it.

The video is titled Minimalism for Collectors. If you have a collection, yet aspire to maintain a minimalist lifestyle, I highly recommend you watch it.

Just because Ron’s video inspired me to clear out my childhood collection, it doesn’t mean you’ll have the same experience. Because, in equal measure, the video validated me in keeping some of my collections. The things that do add value to my life.

But it also allowed me to look at that childhood collection with fresh eyes and motivated me to make a change.

I realised that collection was more of a burden than something I cherished. Worse still – I felt guilty that its condition was deteriorating because I wasn’t taking care of it.

It was time for that 30+-year-old collection to go.

One week later I have an empty cupboard the size of a wardrobe (yes, that’s how much space the collection took up!) and I have made over £1000 selling it off.

I don’t know what happened to me while I was watching Ron’s video, but I no longer felt sentimental about the collection. There was no nostalgia, no memories of happy times playing with it in childhood. I could simply see a stack of stuff that I didn’t even want to touch.

But just because this particular collection was no longer something I wanted, it doesn’t mean I’m against all collections now.

In fact, thank goodness for people with collections, as they are the ones who bought my childhood collection from me.

I picked out the few pieces that meant the most to me – the things that made me smile – and kept those. But all the rest is gone.

I feel so much lighter, happier and at peace, knowing that the collection will continue to be cared for by someone who really wants it.

The decluttering journey – Deciding what to keep

theoretical minimalist minimalism theory- interiors plants (2)

Despite my desire to follow a minimalist lifestyle and the many years of downsizing and decluttering I’ve already put into my life, I still have a lot of stuff.

I just don’t know how it accumulates.

One month, I can feel perfectly satisfied that I have decluttered successfully and only own the things I need and love. I have the bare minimum.

The next month, I can feel overwhelmed by the amount of clutter I still have in my home.

It’s not that I’m going shopping or bringing new items into our home. I’m simply looking at it with fresh eyes. Perhaps more critical eyes.

I could do more.

Maybe I exhausted myself before I had truly finished decluttering last month? Perhaps I was ‘soft’ and allowed myself to keep things that I didn’t really need?

Whatever the reason, the process of decluttering sometimes seems never-ending. (When will it end? Will I be in an empty room, thinking about taking down the blinds?)

So, exasperated with myself, I started looking for motivation to do more. To declutter further. To minimise more.

I uncovered a quote that I hadn’t heard of before and it made a massive difference to how I look at my belongings:

“Decluttering is infinitely easier when you think of it as deciding what to keep, rather than deciding what to throw away.”

Francine Jay

MIND. BLOWN.

Unbelievable though it seems, I hadn’t heard of Francine Jay until now. I know, right? Where I have I been for the last decade?

Don’t worry, I’ve put that right – and I now have her ‘Miss Minimalist’ book on my Kindle.

This quite came into my life at exactly the right time. Just when I was getting despondent about my minimising efforts. It has given me a new perspective on decluttering and I am diving back into the task with renewed vigour.

I’m going into every room and thinking in reverse: ‘If this room were empty, what would I put into it? What would I keep?’ Then it’s simply a case of removing the rest.

So I thought I would share this quote with you today, in the hope that it might make all the difference to you too.

Have you discovered an inspiring quote that helped you on your minimalism journey? Has someone said something to you that made you stop and think? Let me know, I’d love to hear about it.