Travel, declutter, and have a healthier brain. These things might sound unrelated, but they come together and give you space to be even more awesome than you are right now.

The decluttering, minimalism trend grew for years with me watching from the sidelines. I donated clothes that I wasn’t wearing, threw out things that I never used but that was it. It didn’t occur to me to take a deep dive in to decluttering until inspiration came from an unlikely source: travel.

It felt so good to cleanse my space that I did a research project on How Clutter Causes Depressive Symptoms. I’ve got the highlights for you in the last section of this blog post.

You won’t get much done until inspiration is speaking your language. If you’ve been wanting to declutter (or even if you haven’t) read on. You just might find yourself getting rid of sentimental objects that you planned to keep for 40 years to come. Or at least, considering getting rid of them. It’s a process!


How Travel Inspired Me to Start Decluttering

I flew to San Fransisco to visit a friend a few years ago, tugging a standard size suitcase through airport terminals along the way. East coast to west, I hunched under the weight of a heavy backpack. The handle of my suitcase snapped clean off on the last leg of my journey, tugging it up the steps to my friend’s door.

The suitcase might have just been old and well used, but it didn’t help that it was packed to the brim with clothes that I wasn’t even going to end up wearing that week.

Over 7 days in San Fransisco, I wore about half of what I had brought.

The next time I booked a flight, I made it my mission to travel light. I was meticulous in determining what I would need, and brutally honest about what I was actually going to wear. I brought less “options” and more mix-and-matchable clothes, pairing down on hair products and make up.

By the time I travelled to Puerto Rico in January 2017, my light-packing skills had improved by leaps and bounds. I brought only my school backpack for 7 days in the sun. It was stretched tight, but I had finally succeeded in bringing only one carry-on bag.

After a week of snorkelling, exploring, hiking, and making friends with iguanas, I arrived home. I took one look at my closet and thought “Why do I have so much stuff?”

One week, one backpack. Sure, it was hot and sunny and I needed more clothes than that to survive year-round in Canada, but how much more? I took it as proof that I owned way too many clothes, way too many hair products, and just altogether too many things I didn’t really need. The clutter in my space at home absolutely had to go.

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Travel-Inspired Tips to Declutter

I’m not an expert in decluttering, but I can tell you what worked for me. First things first, the ever-popular book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo is in fact worth the read.

Throughout the process of cleaning out my closet, I combined Kondo’s advice with my own travel-inspired decluttering questions to help me determine what stayed, and what needed to go.

Imagine a year around the world. 

While I was in the process of decluttering, a fellow blogger and her husband arrived home from their year-long honey moon. Lia and Jeremy from Practical Wanderlust put all their possessions in storage before jet-setting around the globe. Home again, they unpacked on Instagram stories (follow them on Instagram for hilarious shenanigans).

There were of course many completely reasonable things in storage, and a few odd ball items. Spare jar lids and a packet of ramen noodles tumbled out of one box, as an example.

It got me wondering what items I would be confused to see again if I tucked them away in a storage locker for an entire year. The question: I’m back from a year-long adventure. Am I happy to see this item?

Choose Instagram worthy outfits. 

It sounds superficial, but hear me out. When I started my travel blog, I wanted photos of myself for my posts and Instagram account. I quickly realized that my wardrobe was incredibly lame, and that I was keeping things that I didn’t really like wearing.

This came as something of a surprise. I have always donated things that I am not wearing, and thrown out things that were torn or damaged. I treat my clothes well though, and as a result many items last years. Even though I was still wearing them, I just didn’t enjoy wearing them.

Now, I’m not saying that everything you own needs to be perfectly curated for social media. There’s more to life than pretty Instagram photos – but you deserve to own outfits that make you feel fabulous, and this can act as a positive bench mark. The question: Will I feel good about this outfit if I post a photo on Instagram?

Engage the honesty of light-packing. 

When you’re trying to keep within the weight limit or take one less bag, you become really honest about what you need to take with you.

We form incredibly strong attachments to our possessions, and this only increases the longer we own them. It’s tough to decide what stays and what goes, but you will push yourself to do it in order to avoid paying high baggage fees!

  • Cost of an extra suitcase to travel with things you won’t actually use: $80. 
  • Cost of stuffing your closet and drawers full of things that get in your way: your mental health. More on that later.

Channel the honesty that you use when you’re trying to pack light in to your efforts to declutter. Over time, it gets easier to release those items that are nothing but extra weight, and extra cost. The question: Would I bring an extra bag to bring this stuff?

Realize where the joy is. 

Marie Kondo recommends keeping things that bring you joy. The rest can go. This works – but there is a limit.

When I opened up the bin where my childhood dolls had been stored for the last few years, I felt joy. Their personalities came flooding back to me, memories of hours playing and taking them on adventures. 

If I kept everything that brought me joy, I would still have them.

I travel for fun, because I want to. The thought of boarding a plane or crossing an ocean is exciting, but that’s not the case for everyone. People are forced to flee their homes or leave behind debris because of war and natural disasters every single day.

People arrive in Canada with nothing, least of all beautiful dolls. It took me years to give away my dolls, if I’m being completely honestly. When I did, it was because I realized that the joy did not reside in a storage bin. The joy was in the imagination, the stories, and the fun, and there was going to be more of that in the hands of other little girls than at the back of my closet.

The biggest joys in my life no longer come from my childhood dolls. It often comes from adventure, and exploring, and there’s more of than when you aren’t holding on to extra stuff. The question: Can there be more joy?

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How Clutter Impacts the Brain

When it was time to choose a topic for my honours project presentation, I decided to find out why decluttering felt so good. I started researching, and trying to answer two main questions: Why do you have so much stuff? and What does having too much stuff do too your brain?

Why We Keep Things

It turns out that just the idea of giving away random objects can make you anxious. Picture this: you are participating in a study, where you undergo functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while being given small tasks. 

A researcher asks you to rate your anxiety on a scale of 0-8 before any tasks begin. There’s nothing to be anxious about right now, so you say 0. 

You are shown a photo of a sweater, and told to imagine that it’s yours. This is a blog post and not a lab, so just think of a sweater that belongs to you. Picture one that is currently home in your closet.

Now imagine getting rid of it… forever.

How’s your anxiety level now? I found this experiment repeated twice, in two different journals. In both, participants without a hoarding disorder reported an increase in anxiety from 0 to about 2. The studies also found that in all participants, the ventral medial prefrontal cortex was active during the task. This region at the front of your brain processes fear and loss, and assess risk.

It’s even more difficult to part with items that you view as an extension of yourself. The trophy that proves you’re good at sports, the necklace that shows your Grandmother loved you, the collection of fridge magnets and tiny figurines that identifies you as a world traveler. These things feel really difficult to let go of.

That’s because they are! A study in University students found that the more an object was part of the “extended self,” the more separation distress and grief students reported if they had lost the item.

Summary: when you think of letting go of an object, your brain assesses the fear of losing it and the risk of never having that item again. This creates a bit of anxiety, and you may even experience separation distress and grief if you identified closely with the item.

This is no fun whatsoever and so we do what is easiest in the moment… we keep things.

Clutter, Daily Life Hassles, and Depressive Symptoms

It’s difficult to part with your things, but there’s an important reason why you should: When your possessions become clutter, they become detrimental to your mental health.

Daily hassles are the seemingly small nuisances that occupy our minds, drain our energy, and divide our attention throughout the day. Ultimately, they stress us out. They’re little things, like fumbling to find your keys, deciding what to wear, and they add up.

People who have experience numerous major life stressors – like their house burning down, losing a loved one, or being in an accident – are healthier and happier than people who report high amounts of daily life hassles. The impact on us is pretty huge!

Clutter is a daily life hassle.

There are four points on the daily life hassle scale that relate to clutter:

  1. If you have too many things to do at once, and cleaning the kitchen again is one of them
  2. Interruptions, like it being difficult find the materials that you need to get work done.
  3. Being unsatisfied with your home, in any way, including mess and clutter
  4. Having a home that is hard to maintain – this was my experience. 

Daily hassles work away at your brain, by elevating levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol prepares your body to deal with chronic stressors. Chronic stressors are things that stresses you out, but do not require you to flee or fight.

The signals for cortisol production begin in the brain, ultimately leading to the release of cortisol in to your blood stream. When you have enough cortisol in your blood stream, it circles back to the brain and binds to receptors as a way of saying “there’s enough out here – no need to release any more!” The next time you encounter a chronic stressor, this loop starts up again.

The problems start when the loop is over-engaged. It’s okay for cortisol to bind to receptors in the brain sometimes. When the binding is continuous though, it can cause damage. 

Imagine you’re trying to put away the dishes after a big family dinner. It’s all well and good if someone hands you a glass, and you reach in the cupboard and put it away. If 8 people try to force dishes in to your hands at the exact same time, though, something is guaranteed to shatter. Receptors in the brain get overwhelmed, just like you would.

Clutter is one more thing that adds to our already hectic and busy livesIt stresses you, causes cortisol release, and now there’s one more molecule of cortisol hurtling back at your brain. Eventually your brain says “I can’t do this anymore” and the system falls apart. The collapse of this system can lead to depression in some individiuals, and will definitely lead to depressive symptoms like feeling sad and irritable. Clutter is not solely responsible for depression, but creates an extra, unnecessary daily hassle and source of stress.

Slide from my presentation. Image source:

Less Clutter, More Travel and Adventure

I concluded my presentation on How Clutter Causes Depressive Symptoms by saying “Go be awesome.”

It’s a simple and true fact that taking care of possessions takes time and energy. The less items you’re holding on to, the less tidying up you will probably end doing. Less dusting, less organizing your closet again, less coming home after a long day and looking at a mess.

Give less time and attention to owning a bunch of stuff. Give more to your life, your passions, your travel and adventures. 

Have you decluttered? Will any of these tips help you declutter? Let me know!

Clutter travel pin

16 Replies to “Travel-Inspired Tips to Declutter, and How Having Too Much Stuff Impacts Your Brain”

  1. Can I just say how I LOVE that this post is combining your passion for travel with your research background???

    Anyway, I totally get this. My husband and I just moved into a new home, I and have been completely overwhelmed by all the CRAP we own! It’s like pulling teeth to get him to throw anything away though. Maybe I should share this with him 😉

    1. Thank you! I’ve been looking for ways to merge research and travel! Definitely share this with him and see if something resonates!

  2. This is a great article, I had exactly the same experience and am determined not to buy more stuff just for the sake of it. I am simplifying so I can travel more.

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more on these tips and the whole post itself. Minimalism is the new rave and I think it’s the best idea for solo travelers like me. I hardly have anything to leave behind or lose at the airport because I pack just the things I need. Thanks for putting this up here because many people out there are yet to discover the essence of packing lightly.

  4. This is interesting. I downsized to carry-on only two years ago after losing my luggage in the middle of winter in Iceland – it was so cold and I had nothing. Life lessons learned there – however, it forced to start packing only what I truly needed and it has improved my travels ten fold. I can’t imagine it any other way now.

  5. Considering the fact that my husband and I fit two offices and everything we owned into a one bedroom apartment, I think we did great, even though I have a passion for pop culture and vintage items. But we do love to gather things as we travel (food items, vintage apparel), so the FIRST thing we’re going to do after we unpack into our new apartment (whenever that is) is cut down on the wardrobe!

  6. I love that I stumbled upon this wonderful post now. I have decided to take a year off from work to travel, beginning this summer, and have begun the process of purging. Yes, it is stressful to think of getting rid of some things that I have had for a long time, but I don’t use them/they don’t bring me joy, so getting rid of them also feels so good! I’m surprised by how good it feels to lighten my load. I borrowed The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo from my library & look forward to reading it!

  7. I had exactly the same experience when I cleared out most of my belongings to go travelling in 2011. I went from a hoarder to quite a minimalist – all because of travel. And yes, I felt better for it. Now we’ve stopped living a nomadic lifestyle I have acquired a lot more stuff (also having a baby didn’t help!) but I will say I haven’t got close to my old ways which really would weigh on and darken my mind… Fascinating research you’ve found to explain why!

  8. I love this Nina! We have been on a minimalism journey but hadn’t thought to relate it to travel in any way! Thanks 🙂

  9. Love love this Nina!
    Awesome post! Thanks for sharing – I have been thinking of de- cluttering for a long time
    The sweater project is a good example to recognize your anxiety level

  10. I’ve always been a sentimental hoarder who loves holding on, but in my adult years I’ve made strides to do better. I clean out my closet once a year and I never travel with more than just a carry-on! Love this article. Pinned for later!

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