Is Your Mind Cluttered? Here's How To Tell And What To Do

Stop the mental multitasking and reclaim a sense of calm.

January 10, 2018
cluttered mind; how to relieve stress
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Declutter Your Life is a month-long initiative to help you manage stress and boost your health by learning the principles of banishing clutter and restoring a sense of order to your world.

The laundry. Your cellphone bill. Whether you used “their” in place of “there” in that Facebook post you shared at midnight. The average mind is full of what experts call “mental clutter"—all the chatter that’s going on in our heads during our waking hours. While some of this is normal, it can also be stressful and make it pretty hard to concentrate.

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“Anything that goes on in the mind is ripe to be ‘clutter’ if you haven't learned how to focus and organize internally,” explains Craig Travis, PhD, director of behavioral sciences at OhioHealth Grant Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. (Psst! This walking meditation will help you clear your thoughts.)

For some, that struggle to focus and organize can be directly attributed to a medical disorder: Anxiety disorders, ADHD, manic phase of bipolar, obsessive compulsive disorder, and PTSD are all characterized by what Travis calls “accelerated mental activity” or "racing thoughts.” But experts say they’re seeing a rise in mental clutter among otherwise healthy people who don't have any diagnosable mental health issue. Instead, it’s the rapid pace of our modern lives and the instantaneous flow of information that sends the mind bouncing from “I need to pick up milk after work” to “I haven’t checked my Instagram in a while” and on to “Are avocados healthy?” in the space of a few seconds. We simply have too much information coming at us too fast.

Related: When Anxiety Is A Sign Of Something More Serious

“We've become conditioned by living in this fast-paced, immediate access, instant message, texting, cell phone, fast food drive-through, ATM world,” Travis says. "We don't create or allow for boundaries in our lives.”

 

If you’re feeling bogged down by mental clutter, you may be tempted to go full Luddite, abandoning your phone and computer. Fortunately, you can improve your focus and ability to form memories without moving back a few decades. “With concerted effort over time, you can train yourself to declutter automatically,” says Jennifer Gentile, PsyD, a psychologist who treats patients via telehealth app, LiveHealth Online and at Boston Children’s Hospital. Implementing the following strategies can help.

Try this mood boosting room spray:

Snap out of it

It may sound too good to be true, but simply telling yourself to ignore your to-do-list and focus on the task in front of you can make a difference. Gentile suggests saying “focus” to yourself out loud, as it’s more effective than simply thinking it.

“You can also use a physical reminder, like wearing a rubber band on your wrist and snapping it each time you find your mind wandering or being filled up with irrelevant topics,” she suggests. (This woman kept a gratitude journal for an entire year—here's how it helped her anxiety.)

Declutter your space

If you’ve been delaying a deep clean of your messy desk, now may be the time to grab the recycling bin and get to work. Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to gauge people’s responses to disorganized and organized stimuli. Their findings, published in 2011 in The Journal of Neuroscience, posit that physical clutter in your home or work environment is linked to mental clutter. In other words? That messy desk is making it harder for you to cut through the mental clutter to focus on tasks at hand.

 

Related: 11 Must-Have Organizing Products To Keep Your Kitchen And Pantry Clutter-Free

Eat healthy

If you’ve ever left a restaurant in a “food coma,” you know all too well that what we eat can affect mental processing. Sticking to clean, healthy foods, limiting alcohol intake, and avoiding drugs is part of keeping the brain clear of clutter, too. “The more naturally-occurring foods you eat, the better,” Travis advises. “Stick with clean, healthy foods, that you can spear (meat), plant (vegetables), and pick (fruit).” (One of our editors got her anxiety under control by eating these foods.)

Write it down

When you declutter a physical space, you're forced to find new spots to house all your stuff—be it the garbage can or organizing baskets. This act of moving objects is what declutters the original space. The same can be done with mental clutter by putting pen to paper: When all of the items on your to-do lists get written down, it helps “move” them from your brain to the page, freeing up space in your mind.

“This can help get them out of your mind and alleviate the brain’s need to dwell or mentally try to work on things,” Gentile explains.

Related: Bullet Journaling Helped Me Lose Weight And Curb My Cravings—Here's How I Did It

Give yourself a break

The concept of having it all has driven many of us toward multitasking all the time. We’re typing texts under the conference room table while listening to the boss and doing Kegels. But those efforts to combine tasks can backfire.

“Research shows that multitasking is a myth. It really doesn't exist,” Travis says. “Neuroimaging studies have shown what we are actually doing is multi-switching our focus and attention, and it actually makes us less productive. It’s important for health and mental health to relax and quiet the mind routinely to rejuvenate and recharge ourselves.”

The article Is Your Mind Cluttered? Here's How To Tell And What to Do originally appeared on Prevention.