Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

College dorm rooms have a lot of functions — not only do they operate as a living room, bedroom, and kitchen all in one, but since students like me often have visitors in them, we want them to look tidy and perfectly put-together at all times.

Dorm rooms should be stress-free environments, but they often become a source of anxiety for students. Because of their multipurpose nature and small size, dorm rooms can easily be thrown into a state of disarray.

Worse, psychologists note that a cluttered environment can lead to a cluttered mind. Sherrie Bourg Carter, Ph.D, says in Psychology Today that messy spaces can overwhelm our senses, create distractions, and cause feelings of guilt, frustration, and even embarrassment. “Clutter constantly signals to our brains that our work is never done,” she says.

The good news for students, though, is that they can take a few simple steps — even in the midst of their busy schedules — to turn their spaces into sanctuaries.

Clean one step at a time

Nicole Anzia, a professional organizer and contributor to The Washington Post, says that dedicating two or three hours to one project or space is far more efficient than attempting to clean everything at once. Rather than trying to radically transform your dorm room 15 minutes before your classmates come over for study group, pick a small area of focus for each day of the week. Use the weekends for larger, more time-consuming tasks such as re-organizing closet space or kitchenettes.

Find your favorite items a “home”

Find a “home” for the items you use most frequently. Bourg Carter recommends using closed spaces, such as drawers or closets, as opposed to storing items out in the open. That way, you can eliminate visual stimuli “that create stress and lessen the amount of open space that your mind ‘sees.’” While this might be harder to do with the limited space of a dorm room, try using under-the-bed storage options, bedside caddies, and small ottomans to organize and stow away your notebooks, chargers, and knickknacks, rather then having them strewn around your shelves.

Put things back

One of the biggest challenges in maintaining this practice is making a habit of putting things back where they belong. It is far easier to break a habit than create a new one, but with a little positive reinforcement, new behavioral patterns can persist. Treat yourself to a meal out with friends after a week of maintaining a clean dorm room kitchen, or even purchase a new desk accessory after keeping a clean desk space.

Use scent and color

The scent of your dorm rooms matters, too. That pile of laundry in the corner isn’t just an eye sore — it could have a real and noticeable impact on behavior and well-being. A study from Psychological Science shows that clean scents can motivate clean behavior, and increase the likelihood of reciprocating trust and intentions to engage in charitable behavior.

Theresa Molnar, the executive director of the Sense of Smell Institute, tells Psychology Today that “scents can have positive effects on mood, stress reduction, sleep enhancement, self-confidence, and physical and cognitive performance.” What’s more, specific scents can help achieve specific moods or actions. Jasmine can serve as a sleep aid, peppermint can help you feel alert, and lavender can assist with relaxation by lowering heart rate.

Many colleges and universities prohibit candles and wax burners in dorm rooms, so consult your residence hall’s regulations and look to purchase plug-in air fresheners or essential oil diffusers instead.

Similarly, the color of your surroundings can impact your sense of positivity and perception of stress. A study in Health & Place found that increasing participants’ visibility of blue space “was significantly associated with lower psychological distress.” Consider selecting a bedspread or poster with shades of blue to get that extra hint of positivity during stressful times.

Maintaining a clean, positive environment is essential to well-being, but your room won’t always look like pictures from Pinterest. It’s OK if clutter accumulates from time to time — science suggests that a little mess might spark creativity, and Marie Kondo said in her Netflix series that her home gets messy sometimes, too. It’s normal! But stick to a regular schedule, and you’ll generally feel a lot better, and less stressed, about your space.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis


  • Jessica Hicks

    Managing Editor at Thrive

    Jessica Hicks is a managing editor at Thrive. She graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in journalism, sociology, and anthropology, and is passionate about using storytelling to ignite positive change in the lives of others.