Overcome Overwhelm by Paring Down

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For most of us when our space is organized and clean it’s easier to focus on the task at hand.
But we don’t often think about the flip side:
Having too many things in your space, especially if it’s messy or disorganized, can drain your energy and significantly increase your sense of overwhelm.

In the last few years the 'minimalist' movement has hit the bookstore shelves and is all the rage in just about every blog and magazine.

The idea is that the less stuff you have the less of a burden it is to keep things clean…the less money you spend…the fewer decisions you have to make. I have several friends who have gone to a "capsule wardrobe" with only 30-40 pieces total. If you're one of these people, more power to you (and…if that's you, you can probably skip the rest of this post!) This kind of paring down is more than I personally want to undertake but without question having less stuff will remove some burden.

This last month my family and I have been staying in an AirBnB because we have rats in our house. I was shocked by this because our house is VERY tidy, and VERY uncluttered. But rats look for warmth. And we are good stewards of the planet and the vermin love that compost. It so happens that getting rid of rats is no easy task. If you don’t want to poison them (then they die in the walls) you have to systematically figure out how they are getting in, one test area at a time without disrupting their space too much or they’ll just take a break and come back with a vengeance later.

I am also about to launch a book into the world, have pretty much two full time jobs, and a twelve-year-old who just started junior high. My stress bucket is full full full!

What I’ve found though is that being at the rental my stress is so much lower, even though overall in my life it is so much higher. It’s because there aren’t a million little tasks to do, because I’m not distracted by all the things, because I only brought a few weeks of clothing with me, including just a few pairs of shoes.

I realized that even though I have gotten rid of about 50% of my stuff—I had way too much stuff—I still have a long way to go to create a space around me where I don’t feel pulled in a million directions. Where I can focus on the tasks at hand and have relaxation time to boot. And this is a place where I have a great deal of control—as opposed to the book timelines, my kid’s middle school drama, or the rats.

One of the things that I help my patients and clients with is figuring out where they have control over stress in their lives and where they don't.

Most often our physical space is an area where we do have a great deal of personal control. Acting on this is empowering and at the same time it is actually logistically helpful to keep ourselves on track.
Do you want to feel more settled? Less agitated? More focused? Do you want to look around and feel like your space is peaceful and sorted? Choose.

If the idea of organizing is daunting to you just take this one step at a time and be gentle with yourself. De-cluttering for most people is a difficult process. We get emotionally attached to our things and that’s normal. Be clear, though, about how it serves you to hold onto things vs. how it might feel once you’ve released things you no longer need. Remember that each step you take you're choosing to make more space for how you really want to feel.

If this is something that feels like it would be helpful for you, I am going to suggest that you start with your bedroom. So many of my patients and clients report—after clearing out their bedrooms—that having a beautiful relaxing space where they sleep has literally improved their sleep quality. They also report that they wake up in a better mood when their sleeping space is neat and pleasing.

Clearing the Bedroom

The space you sleep in should be clean, organized, and even a little Zen.
You want the space to radiate rest and relaxation.
A peaceful space leads to more peaceful sleep.

Everything should have its own specific place. This may take some time to get in order but trust me, you’ll be relieved, better rested, and happier in the end.

1. Start with your bedside table. Clear the top. If you have a digital clock by your bed, move it across the room or get rid of it. It’s not good to have light or an electromagnetic field close to your head. If you can’t live without a clock at your bedside, get an analog alarm. I love the daylight alarm clock that slowly increases light, like sunrise in the morning. But again, not on your bedside table if you can help it.

The only things that should be on your bedside table (other than your analog clock) are any books you are currently reading (if you are in the middle of a number of books, pick two or three as this will prevent overwhelm), reading glasses if you use them, tissues, and a bedside lamp. If you journal before bed or when you first wake up, you can also have a journal and a pen. If your bedside table has a drawer, organize the contents and take out anything that you don't use regularly or isn't related directly to sleep or sex—the only two things you should use your bed for, according to sleep experts.

2. Dirty clothing. If you want to keep a hamper in your room, I recommend one with a lid. If you need a catch-all for clothes you take off before you sort clean vs dirty, or for when you’re in a rush, find a corner to tuck it into. This should be emptied daily, with laundry going in your laundry basket and clothing that you are going to wear again put into your drawers or closet. Dirty clothing is one of the worst clutter culprits.

3. The bed. Try to make your bed on a daily basis. Do this every morning as soon as you wake up. Coming into your room in the evening and finding your sleeping space neat and tidy will help you stay calm and centered.

4. Jewelry. I played with many systems to organize my jewelry and finally ended up with a wall mounted jewelry armoire. I have a large one that also doubles as my full-length mirror, but there are smaller ones, as well as many different top of dresser or drawer systems to choose from. If you can use a storage system that is behind closed doors or in a drawer this will decrease the feeling of clutter in your space. If you don’t wear it, get rid of it.

5. Closet. If you have a closet in your bedroom, even though it’s behind closed doors it should still be organized. I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the section on managing your clothes and closet was fabulous. I highly recommend it. What’s most important is that you must be brutal when organizing your closet to get rid of the clutter. This is an area that is very daunting for many people, which is why I left it for last. If this is hard for you, find a friend who also wants to tidy up and plan two dates—one at that person's house, and one at yours! Make sure it's a friend who will be blunt, honest, and loving.

If you're not shooting for a 'capsule wardrobe' and you have the space, I personally think it's fine to have lots of wonderful pieces. But only if each piece meets ALL of the following parameters:

Fits well and suits your body/figure (if you care about how your clothes fit)
Is in style or of classic style (if you care about style)
Isn’t falling apart
You love it (or like it a lot if it's a staple piece…you don't need to love your black cami or your gym socks)
You actually wear it

Once your bedroom is clear of clutter, make a plan for the next space — and put this on your calendar. One space a week, or one space a month, or whatever works for your schedule. You’ll be amazed at how this decreases your feeling of overwhelm, one little step at a time.

And on that note, my last patient didn't show up so I'm going to go clear out some things from my office closet!

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About the author

Dr. Samantha Brody

Dr. Samantha Brody is a licensed naturopathic physician (ND) and acupuncturist and the owner and founder of Evergreen Natural Health Center in Portland, Oregon. She earned her doctoral degree in Naturopathic Medicine in 1996 and her Master of Science in Oriental Medicine in 2001 from the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. Her new book, Overcoming Overwhelm: Dismantle Your Stress From the Inside Out, releases on January 1, 2019. Please visit and follow her on: Facebook, Instagram