09/30/2015 06:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Clearing Stress and Stuff: Where to Start When You're Already Overwhelmed

No amount of coaxing or analyzing is going to move something out that door if the mind is spinning a memory from the past, feels duty-bound to save "just in case," or is caught in fight-or-flight survival mode. -A Year to Clear

It's all well and good to clear your home and life, but if you're in a constant state of overwhelm, no amount of hope, trash bags, or nifty containers is going to make a sustainable dent on the build-up of stuff and stress.

Same goes with urgency.


If you're feeling desperate to make a change, the real work of clearing must first focus on the desperation and the overwhelm - not the piles.

I know, bummer, right? Especially when all you want is to see the stuff and stress gone!

But here's the good news: when you address the resisting patterns, the physical stuff and emotional stress starts to melt away. Yes, like magic! Over time, clearing the things and thoughts that once plagued you become an effortless non-event.

So, how do you break the cycle of overwhelm? And where does one even begin?

The short answer is you've already started by simply reading this far. That may not feel like much, but desire is a powerful first step.

Below is the longer answer which comes from my reply to a question I received recently in an email [expanded for this article]:

Hi Stephanie,

I have a serious need to declutter my home, as I believe it's not only affecting me - but also my kids (I have two, ages 6 and 8). That being said, I am supremely busy and need to be as efficient as possible. Would you mind steering me in the right direction? I have lots of piles that need to be addressed, pronto.

All my best, and thanks for your work in the world.


Hi N,

Your question is a good one. It's the million-dollar question that I get asked all the time - with "overwhelm" being the background music driving the whole thing.

And you're probably not going to like my answer. ;-)

I'm of the school of clutter clearing that believes that quick-fix solutions that "deal with" or "get rid of" stress and stuff don't really work.

This comes from having spent twenty years deep in the trenches of clearing people's living spaces and breaking the code on why most clearing efforts, though well intentioned, don't last.

Short term solutions might help for a little while. But until we give ourselves permission to feel the feelings that are encoded in the stress and stuff and cultivate real ease, the cycle of overwhelm usually sneaks back in.

When we move too fast and focus on end result we miss the chance to clear in way that changes everything - for good!

My counterintuitive approach to clearing things and thoughts may not look like much on paper, but it is simple. And it works. It boils down to adopting daily baby-step practices that build upon one another to break the overwhelm cycle, soften resistance, and develop new habits that lead to lasting change.

If you're really serious about reducing your clutter, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional, you have to start slow and dial it way back to bypass the fight-or-flight part of the brain that gets activated (and is already in the red zone of overwhelm). Addressing an issue that drives you nuts with despair would not be a good place to start. Breaking down the onerous task into smaller, more manageable bites, however, would be.

Here's how it works:

For starters you need to adopt the "rule of one" to clearing whatever is challenging you - that is, address just one thing, one pile, one area, or one issue for one minute, once a day, until the task becomes effortless, the issue is no longer a challenge, and/or the overwhelm subsides.

Next you need to give the task or issue all of your attention. It's a bit like the principle of acupuncture, the Chinese practice of inserting tiny needles into key areas of the body to restore balance: when you insert compassionate awareness into the thing or area that is causing you to feel overwhelm, you "needle" areas of energetic stuckness in your home and life and give the buried emotions some space to reveal themselves and release.

Finally you need to observe physical sensations and allow feelings to arise without personalizing or judging them.


If you applied the above principles to a task like sorting the mail, for example, this is what a four-day PRACTICE SEQUENCE might look like:

  • Day 1 - IN-TEND - Set a timer for sixty seconds and place yourself in front of the pile of mail (or whatever is challenging you). Bring all of your awareness to the rat's nest of bills, letters, catalogs, and junk. Allow any emotional "weather" that may arise (e.g. the shoulds, the guilt, the shame, the squirmy frustration or impatience...). Notice your breathing. Invite ease. If this process does not calm you after one minute, leave the pile where it is and repeat again tomorrow. Allow your basic self not to like it one bit.
  • Day 2 - ATTEND - Sort the day's mail for one minute with complete awareness. Notice specific sensations that come up as you move through each item in the pile (e.g. the "shallow breath gulp" when you see a utility bill; the jarring resistance triggered by junk mail or catalogs that you never subscribed to; the pummeling staccato of self-judgment for letting this go for so long; the sludgy stuckness of overwhelm and attachment to outcome...). Stop and go back to Day 1 above if the task feels too much.
  • Day 3 - OBSERVE - Sort the day's mail like you're watching a movie of yourself sorting the mail. Allow feelings and sensations to arise without personalizing or judging them. Notice where in your body you feel the energetic charge and emotional weather. Notice your breathing. Stop and go back to Day 2 above if this step feels too much or impossible.
  • Day 4 - NURTURE - Sort the day's mail by following the previous three steps. Add gentleness and self-kindness to this round: give yourself props for sticking with the task; notice how good it feels to put each piece of mail where it belongs; do something that feels really good after you've put the mail away.

Once you're out of the red zone of overwhelm, you can begin to incorporate all four steps into a quick and easy daily practice. You'll know you have mastered the task when these steps come naturally and no longer elicit a stress response.

For situations that are super-charged and onerous, the trick is to dial back your efforts to a bare minimum task that doesn't activate the fight-or-flight response. If sorting the mail is still too much to handle after several days repeating step one, walk away. Leave it and practice clearing something smaller and more doable - like a drawer, the kitchen sink, your email inbox - something that doesn't rattle your cage. The mail will be there for you to come back to when energy and motivation allow.

Cycling through the four-step sequence is the practice. It doesn't matter if it's a paper clip, or even a hairball, as long as you clear it with compassionate awareness.


The last thing I'll say is that if you enter into this whole thing as a nourishing journey instead of a tedious task that you have to complete by a certain deadline (as "efficiently" as possible), you may be pleasantly surprised by how easy and fun clearing can be. You may also be surprised by how it morphs into effortless clearing in other areas of your home and life.

As I like to say, Clearing is not about freeing up some space. It's about freeing you!

Hope this helps. Happy clearing!


Dear Readers: If you found this message helpful, please forward it to someone else (or share, like, tweet, pin... ) and let's build the clearing energy together that will help to lighten all of our loads!