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How to Spot the Emotional Clutter in Your Life and Find Ways to Clear It

You have a work project that you haven't finished yet, plus another one to work on after that. In addition, you have to plan and prepare for your child's upcoming birthday in two weeks. Meanwhile, you can't stop thinking about the argument you had with your sister last month.

Issues like these can get your brain spinning with ideas like “I’m so overwhelmed” and “Nobody appreciates me.” Thoughts like these can be a form of emotional clutter. 

“Emotional clutter is a type of clutter that is in our heads,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health with Banner Health. 

“Emotional clutter is the persistent, negative thoughts we have about ourselves, our lives and others. It can be anything that is weighing us down emotionally, such as negative self-talk, grudges, toxic relationships or unresolved issues,” he said.

“A lot of us can get burned out and overwhelmed by our daily lives. The chaos around us, the to-do lists, bad habits, intrusive thoughts, the news, the opinions of others, our busyness and everyday problems — all these things contribute to our mental overload and create mental burdens and excess strain.”

Just like physical clutter can overwhelm your home, car or workspace, emotional clutter can pile up and impact your mental well-being. It can cloud your thoughts and make it hard to focus, make decisions and feel calm. Unaddressed emotional clutter can contribute to depression and anxiety

The stress of unaddressed emotional clutter can also increase your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and other health issues. It can also weaken your immune system, which makes you more likely to get illnesses and infections.  When you deal with emotional clutter, you’re better able to keep your life healthy and balanced, face challenges, cope with stress and have a positive outlook.

Signs and symptoms of emotional clutter

“To identify emotional clutter, you need to recognize the negative internal narrative going on in your head,” Dr. Fox said. “If you do not recognize and change the negative internal narrative, it will hold you back from focusing on the good.”

When you’re facing emotional clutter, you may feel overwhelmed, stressed and on edge. Tackling everyday tasks may feel impossible because of the negative thought pattern. Recognizing when you feel overwhelmed is the first step toward addressing emotional clutter.

“Clutter of any kind can leave us overwhelmed, nervous and anxious. Left unchecked, it can increase our heart rate and leave us breathing heavily. It can even cause a panic attack response,” Dr. Fox said. 

With emotional clutter, you may find that you have difficulty concentrating. You may struggle to stay focused at work, in conversations or even when you’re doing things you normally find engaging. You may have trouble making decisions — you could hesitate, second-guess yourself or have trouble committing to choices.

You may also notice sleep problems. You may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up feeling refreshed. You may be more aware of emotional clutter during quiet times like when you're trying to fall asleep. And when you're not sleeping well, you can feel more stressed and overwhelmed.

Where emotional clutter comes from

Many different factors in your life can contribute to emotional clutter. Work demands such as tight deadlines, high expectations and workplace dynamics can add to your stress levels. And that stress can carry over into times when you're not at work.

Your relationships can also be a source of emotional clutter. You may have conflicts, grievances or communication problems in your relationships with family, friends, partners or colleagues.

In addition, life transitions can add to emotional clutter. Changes like a new job, a move to a new home or a change in family dynamics can stir up emotions.

Targeting emotional clutter

It's important to recognize where your emotional clutter is coming from. That way you can tailor your approach for clearing it.

You can start by thinking about the situations and circumstances that trigger your emotional responses. Keeping a journal can help you stay on top of your thoughts and emotions when you're dealing with challenges. 

With this list, you can identify the areas in your life where you want to clear your emotional clutter. You may have a few different negative thoughts to tackle. Start with the one or two that appear most often. 

For example, if you are constantly telling yourself, “I am so overwhelmed,” you want to shift that negative thought to a more positive and manageable thought. Try something like, “I know I have a lot on my plate, but I can break it up into smaller parts and tackle it all.” 

“It’s like a cluttered room. It’s not easy to walk in and de-clutter it all. You have to break it down into smaller pieces so it’s easier to manage,” Dr. Fox said.

How to manage emotional clutter

There are a lot of strategies that can help you get your emotional clutter under control. Here are a few to try.

Mindfulness and meditation

While you may feel as though you can’t find time for these practices, they can transform your life. 

Try focusing on your breath for a few minutes, scanning your body for places where you feel tense or uncomfortable or taking a walk where you stay mindful of your surroundings. You may want to try an app like Calm or Headspace to guide your meditation.

Mindfulness and meditation can help you reduce stress, regulate your emotions, concentrate and be more resilient.

Healthy boundaries

Creating and maintaining healthy boundaries is important for managing emotional clutter and having a sense of balance in your life. 

To set healthy boundaries, understand your own needs and limits. Communicate what you can realistically achieve to others and ask them for the support you need. Say no to things that don't line up with your priorities. And stay flexible and understand that your plans might need to adapt.


Let your family and friends know that you're struggling with emotional clutter. Sharing your thoughts and emotions with them can help. You can also address emotional clutter with a therapist or counselor. They can help you develop strategies and find tools that work for you. Getting support is not a sign of weakness.

“You should seek out a professional when self-help is not working to eliminate negative behaviors and actions or when the behaviors and actions are negatively impacting all aspects of your life,” Dr. Fox said.

Positive reinforcement

As you make progress toward clearing your emotional clutter, add positive reinforcement. Give yourself a small treat or share your wins with a friend. Positive reinforcement helps you stay committed to emotional decluttering.

And stick with it. “We are organized people by nature. Like decluttering the house, you need to make sure you are constantly decluttering your mind,” Dr. Fox said. “When you deal with emotional clutter you will help stop yourself from feeling frustrated, overwhelmed and defeated.”

The bottom line

Emotional clutter is made up of the negative thoughts that swirl through your mind. The more often these thoughts repeat, the stronger they get. 

You can teach yourself to swap them for positive thoughts. You can practice mindfulness, set boundaries and connect with support to help clear emotional clutter.

If you want help getting your emotional clutter under control, talk to your health care provider or reach out to an expert at Banner Health

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