The Mess Trigger: Anxiety & Stress


This is the aftermath of art class at my house.  Yes, after hosting – more – kids, it’s still cleaner than what mine can accomplish in a day.  And at 4am last night (this morning?) I looked at the fruit of my labors and felt happy.

Happy?  Yes, happy.  And relaxed.  Even at 4am.  Because it was CLEAN!  Organized.  Stuff put where it belonged instead of strewn all over the floor in some kind of manic obstacle course designed for adults to kill themselves on.  At 4am this morning I realized that mess is a bigger trigger than I thought.  I realized that it’s super important for me to maintain this – and I realized that’s almost impossible.


It’s a trigger for the kids too, but they aren’t motivated enough to do anything about it.  They love it when I clean up – or after I force them to help clean up with dire threats about eating dinner in their rooms.  They seem incapable of actually putting things back when they’re done and avoiding the mess in the first place!

Looking at my clean floors, cleared counters, organized school things, and slightly bare desk made me feel light and relaxed.  There’s usually a tightness to my shoulders that transfers to my neck (and then head, and then poof! migraine.)  There’s an elephant hanging over me by a thin thread that’s ready to snap.  There’s gloominess to my days, a sort of panicked desperation when all I can see is mess strewn wide and far.

If I’m having a bad week, the mess builds up.  If I miss one night of chores, then I’m doomed to a hamster wheel of never-ending catch-up.  It’s stressful.

First-world problem, sure, but if it’s a trigger then I have to deal with it.  And I have to help my family deal with it.


It’s better for my health and my sanity if my house is clean and organized.   I look at photographs of hoarders’ homes and I shudder: I would go completely insane if I had to live in a house like that.  It’s overwhelming.  Visually, sensual, olfactory overload.  I cannot imagine growing up in a house like that.

I’m slowly starting to realize that many of my physical symptoms are stress-related.  Every doctor tells me to reduce stress, but they never actually talk about what that physically does to your body.  Given that I live with 2 kids with Sensory Processing Disorder (which is a state of constant stress) you would think that I could connect the dots a little better.  No doctor has ever said “hey, your chest pain and trouble breathing might be a stress symptom.  Here are some things you can do to help.”

I pointedly asked a doctor one time what he suggested to reduce stress.  He got a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face, and after a few seconds of frantically thinking he declared that I could try deep breathing.  Deep breathing?  That’s all you’ve got?

None of the medical professionals that I’ve dealt with really known how to counteract stress.  They know intellectually that stress makes everything worse, but they have no suggestions or options to help with it.  I can’t pop a pill for stress, I can’t do physical therapy for stress, and I can’t go to therapy for stress.  I could – some of that might help – but it’s not something they’re trained to evaluate or fix.  It’s out of their comfort zone.  In fact, it’s so far out of their comfort zone that they couldn’t recognize it when I came in complaining of chest pains and breathing issues (some allergy issues in there too, by the way.)

We need a better way.

If I, a full-grown adult, struggle to manage my stressors, how can I expect my kids to deal with it?  If I cannot figure out how to help myself, how can I help them learn to cope and reduce stress – stress that they have no control over because their bodies are sending the wrong signals to their brains?  It’s a rough path to walk.  It makes my heart hurt for them.

Sometimes I wonder if what I deal with, what I experience, is some sort of warped universe attempting to help me be more empathetic.  Got the lesson, can I take a break now?


So, what am I doing about it?  If the medical professionals were a dead-end, what am I actually doing to help myself?

I’m trying new things.  I’m working on mindfulness, for both myself and the kids.  I’m trying to spend more time in nature even if I don’t feel well.  I’m  – trying – to exercise more, in hopes that my health issues will abate a bit.  I walk a fine line of using up too many spoons versus getting the benefits of exercise.  I’m doing deep breathing.  Funny, right?  The science behind the deep breathing thing is kind of funny – we do shallow breathing when we’re stressed, and deep breathing when we’re relaxed.  You can trigger stress just by shallow breathing, something that I find myself doing instinctively when I’m focusing hard.

Deep breathing says “all safe!” to your body and its complex systems.   It helps.  It feels funny – sounds funny – but if it works, yay me!


I’m teaching the kids deep breathing.  The Engineer has decided that deep breathing when frustrated should be done directly in the face of the person you’re frustrated with.  I don’t care as long as he does it.  We practice after our mindfulness sessions – a whopping 2 minutes of listening to bird sounds.  At the 30 second mark, he’s flopping on the floor wailing about “this is taking too long!”  At 1 minutes, I hear “is it over yet?” over and over.  We never make it to 2 minutes without each kid getting frustrated and talking loudly.

Their favorite part is the deep breathing, because I give them bubbles to blow while they practice.  A good deep breath means lots of bubbles.  Shallow breaths mean no bubbles.  It’s a win!


I guess my previous determination to ignore the dust bunnies has to give way to making clean up a priority.  For my health.  For my sanity.  Time to pick up the toys, kids!  Militant mommy 😦






One comment

  1. The mess is a symptom. I just need to glance at my desk to know the state of my mind. When my mess reaches the tipping point, I crash and burn. Then, with a lot self-loathing, I pull myself out of the ashes; recommit to doing better at everything. I’m seeking a way off this roller coaster. It is not healthy.


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