The long list of things I have tried to get rid of my chronic overthinking, chronic worrying, chronic existential angst (we’ll just call it anxiety) begins with benzos and Zoloft and yucky spoonfuls of Prozac when I was 13. I’ve tried yoga and meditation and reading Deepak Chopra. I did breathing exercises and went to therapy and all of these things helped in their own way, but I still hated going to bed because I knew thats when my anxiety thoughts were the worst.
Every night was the same, I would find one aspect of my life and get dragged into the pit of unrealistic dark fantasy that is anxiety. I would replay conversations from five years ago and add up how much money I had and convince myself I had various types of cancer. I would do all these awful mental gymnastics that are unfortunately just part of daily life for someone with anxiety.
So what worked?
One of my anxieties was that I was a failure as an adult, that I couldn’t take care of myself. The evidence was all around me, I couldn’t even keep my apartment clean. This was definitely the apartment of someone who does not have their shit together, I would tell myself, there were clothes everywhere, books and papers stacked on every surface, dust gathering on my framed photos and decorative boxes no matter how much I tried to keep things clean. Every day I felt that what I saw around me confirmed all the icky thoughts about myself I was having in my head.
When I decided I’d had enough, I got rid of half my stuff. And then I got rid of even more. 70% of my clothes were picked up by the Epilepsy Foundation. I got rid of 9/10 purely decorative items I owned. I limited my “sentimental” things to two boxes that could be neatly stored in my closet. I sold my books. And then I got rid of all the furniture I no longer needed to house the junk I no longer had.
I can’t tell you how much lighter I felt afterwards, as if all of this stuff was literally weighing me down. Now I am a person without stuff. I can stand in my closet and leisurely pick out outfits because there is so much space. I feel like an adult with a luxury apartment, but I still pay my same old cheap rent.
What I never realized was that I wasn’t a messy person. I am a clean person who just had too much stuff to keep clean. Now I deep clean every Sunday and it’s the most relaxing part of my week (and it only takes and hour or so). I like going to sleep now. I go to bed and feel happy with the clean sheets and clean floors and clean lines in my apartment. What I see around me is settled, so my mind feels settled too.
Why did this work?
Embracing minimalism helped with my anxiety because I’m starting every day with a heavy advantage in my corner. My apartment is always clean and well-ordered because I have such little stuff that it’s easy to keep it this way. I still reap the psychological benefits of feeling like a healthy, put-together person and then I go out into the world and act like a healthy, put-together person.
There’s no busy patterns in my house to speed up my thoughts, no knick knacks to look cluttered, no mess to agitate my “I’m not doing as much as I should” spidey sense. It’s kind of like a dress-for-the-job-you-want thing where now that my apartment looks like a Real Adult apartment, I feel like I fit that role. I don’t want to say my problems are magically solved, but my baseline health and happiness is higher and its relatively easy to maintain. I feel capable of solving problems when they come up because I’ve surrounded myself with a home that makes that feel true.
Along the way I’ve found help from aspirational Tumblrs of serene, calm, beautiful apartments like mine might be if I had more money and a better view. It’s always nice to aspire to something better than where you are at in every area of your life, but I never read into the people who had these apartments and what they were like — that was always irrelevant to me and I’m not the kind of person who would think someone is interesting because of an aesthetic anyway (I’m not an art person, whoops). They were just pretty, calming things to look at and give me ideas about what my next furniture purchase might be.
I’m writing this because I think minimalism will be helpful for other people with anxiety, and a bit because I want to defend it as a life choice. My friend Chelsea Fagan wrote an article criticizing these blogs and my other friends agree, minimalism is boring.
Minimalism is boring, but when you have anxiety “boring” feels very luxurious.
Boring is the calm backdrop someone like me needs to be able to focus on what’s more important. When we’re talking about health we often say, “you are what you eat” and I believe that’s true with what you choose to read — you are what you read — why wouldn’t it also be true with the aesthetic you choose to surround yourself with? If my space is focused and clutter-free, that is what my mood will be like also. I don’t mind sacrificing a little personality in the walls of my bedrooms for some sanity and clear-headedness when I work on my passion projects or come home to relax with a book.
I wouldn’t advocate following minimalism lifestyle blogs, it’s one thing to look at fun, interesting images and another to dig in and get stuck in a comparathon between your actual life and the idealized version of another person’s. But then again, I wouldn’t recommend reading any lifestyle blogs because that’s the pit almost all of them fall into. I wouldn’t even recommend having an Instagram. Don’t read or be around people who fill you with self-doubt, that’s just common sense.
If you haven’t tried minimalism but you have anxiety or wish your thoughts were calmer or more focused, try a mini-project and see how it makes you feel. Empty out one corner of your living space of everything non-essential — be ruthless. See how your week changes when your sleeping area or desk are completely clutter-free and the only thing available for you to focus on is the task at hand. My calm, clean, minimalist apartment is the jumpstart I need to feel confident and capable and carry that attitude into my life each day.