How to Help People Declutter Who Have Symptoms of Trauma

As most of you know, I worked in mental health for many years working with vulnerable people (mostly women) but I also worked with men in the early years.  When I think of the individuals I worked with, most of the women who came through the doors at My Sisters’ Place have had some kind of trauma in their life.  We worked with a Relational Model and within a Trauma and Violence Informed Approach with the women there.  

What this actually means is that we worked “with” the women and we took the lead from them. Who knows best about what they need than the person using the service.  We made sure that we had opportunities for the women to have a say, to tell us what they wanted and what they needed, to help them feel that this was their life and to empower them to see their own personal strengths.  

It is likely that most individuals who struggle with Clutter/Chronic Disorganization also have had a history of trauma and/or violence in their past.  

Vulnerability factors that can put people at more risk

  • Family history of hoarding (mother, father, grandmother, etc.) They likely have suffered from their own history of trauma
  • History of mental illness in the family (depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, bi-polar, etc.)
  • Parental values and behaviour (ie: values about waste, obsessively neat, compulsive acquiring/saving, hand me downs, control over decisions (perfectionism), sentimentality. 
  • Physical obstacles (time, space, health, others living in the home) 
  • Traumatic events (loss of loved one, assaults and violence, moving, deprivation, divorce, birth of a child) 
  • Other……..Loss of belongings, eviction, hospitalization, loss of contact with family members

“After a traumatic event a person can either try to cope using negative methods or learn to cope successfully and enhance their ability to cope in the future”

It can really depend on a person’s resiliency factors, supportive friends and family, community supports, personal resources like basic needs met, safe housing, etc.

Some of the symptoms that may show up are: 

  • difficulty thinking clearly – can be all over the place, not focused
  • feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and depression
  • physical and emotional clutter starts building up 
  • lots of internal/intrusive thoughts and constant ruminating
  • emotional flooding – big feelings come out of nowhere
  • no feelings at all and just being shut down (emotionally numb)
  • avoidance tendencies and wanting to isolate 
  • triggers come up as they work on their stuff
  • thoughts of self harm (please consult a registered therapist or mental health worker if needed)

Some people will create a little nest around themselves as this can feel like their safe space.  No one can hurt them here and it can feel like a way of keeping people (or relationships) out.  Compulsive shopping, acquiring and difficulty discarding can become a way of coping with those uncomfortable emotions. Other addictive behaviours like drugs, alcohol, food can be a way that people cope and can really just make symptoms worse.  Moving stuff around, looking at their belongings, can be another way that people can distract themselves from the pain they are thinking and feeling

How can we as Professional Organizers help?

  • Understanding the emotional, physical and psychological effects and responses that an individual might have is so important as you do this work 
  • Get to know your client looking for commonalities.  
  • Focus on your clients strengths and what they are doing well
  • Ask your client what they need to feel safe and calm. Help them come up with a list if needed “What can I do when I feel overwhelmed, when it’s all too much, etc. _______________ walking, dancing, moving my body, shake off the emotions, listen to music, grounding, writing, art work, praying, etc. 
  • Help your client to create safety and comfort in their living space
  • Grounding exercises can be helpful if your client cannot settle themselves
  • As you work with your client they may need to take breaks – shorter sessions also may be beneficial
  • Go slow, start small and focussed, then work on the next right thing 
  • Honour all feelings as you go through this process – the uncomfortable feelings go away as we work through them 
  • Doing what you say you are going to do and following through will help you to gain their trust. 
  • Advocate for your client if needed.  

As Professional Organizers we need to be compassionate, non judgemental, understanding, patient, take the clients lead, and work with the client wherever they are at offering gentle help as needed.   

Some Resources: 

What is PTSD and Options for Treatment

Trauma Informed Practice Guide

Grounding Exercises

About Kim

I’m Kim, your go-to Professional Organizer and Virtual Coach! I’m beyond excited to embark on this clutter-free adventure with you. With a background in mental health and a passion for transforming spaces, I bring a holistic approach to decluttering. It’s not just about neatening up physical spaces; it’s about fostering a mindset shift that radiates throughout your life. I founded Space For You Clear the Clutter, Heal Your Life and have been working with individuals and groups for about 15 years. I've also trained with Professional Organizers of Canada and the Institute for Challenging Disorganization.
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12 Responses to How to Help People Declutter Who Have Symptoms of Trauma

  1. This is lovely advice, Kim. I completely agree that the client is the one who knows best what they need. We, as professional organizers, are there to work with them – not to impose our agenda on them. Looking for (and helping them to identify and acknowledge) their strengths is one of the best ways professional organizers can serve their clients.

    • Kim says:

      Thanks Diane Yes, we all have our strengths and sometimes we need to have someone else point them out to us. Thank you for commenting!

  2. I really love your suggestion to “ask what they need to feel safe and calm.” This feels like a way to consider alternatives, and take proactive/positive action, instead of simply focusing on everything they are doing “wrong.” I’m going to try to add this to my list of questions when working with clients. Thanks for sharing this thoughtful post.

    • Kim says:

      Thank you Seana. So glad to inspire you with this question to ask. It can be easy to skip it or not even think about it. Thank you for your kind words.

  3. Powerful post, Kim! Your suggestions on how to deal with symptoms of trauma people while decluttering are wonderful. I love that you mentioned to ask your clients what they need to feel safe and calm. This statement also helps them feel less a victim and feel more empowered.

    • Kim says:

      Hi Sabrina, Yes! thats what I think too. It can be so hard to reach out for help but to encourage them with some autonomy to talk about what they need is very empowering. Thanks so much!

  4. This is an extraordinary post, Kim! Your understanding, compassion, and suggestions are powerful. How lucky your clients are to have you as their advocate.

    So much of what you said are things that came up during the ICD conference I just attended. As organizers, it’s important to be sensitive and knowledgeable about the inner challenges our clients might face. It will inform how to best support them in their journey forward. When I read the list of vulnerability factors, I recognized many of my clients with those experiences. It’s a heart full.

    • Kim says:

      Linda, Yes, I really want to get back in the loop with ICD and to attend next years conference. The topics are perfect. I will be keeping an eye on all the deets. Thank you for your kind words.

  5. This is wonderful advice especially asking the client on what they need to feel safe and calm. The client in this situation should feel very comfortable to be able to trust us to help them. Great post.

  6. I love this post. One of the hardest things for professional organizers — because all of us have a drive to “fix” things — is to just sit quietly with what’s going on, without trying to “fix” the person, eliminate their pain (or painful behaviors) when we do not have the training to do that. Instead, all of the steps you provide, but especially listening and supporting, rather than trying to lead. If we can help create a sense of safety, everything else can flow from there.

    This all comes up much more often than most novice or aspiring organizers imagine. Asking “what they need to feel safe and calm” is a wonderful way to not only ground the situation, but ourselves as organizers.

    • Kim says:

      Thank you Julie, I think sometimes we need that reminder to slow down and just witness what is happening with our clients. Thanks for you thoughtful comment.

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