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

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.