Tidying Up: What Cleanliness Says About Your Mental Health

Cluttered closet

One of the things I’ve always admired about myself is that sometimes my behavior, when overly stressed or anxious, can feel beneficial. A few minutes to whisk the vacuum across the living room floor, and it’s like I meditated; give me a sponge and a grimy bathroom, and I’ll give you shine and calm.

Looking at a spotless and tidy home, whatever’s bothering me feels temporarily paused. Cleanliness translates to lower stress and anxiety for me — and a flawless home for my family growing up, my roommates in college, and my husband now — how lucky are they?

Cleanliness As a Compulsion

According to a University of Connecticut study, while they might be lucky, I should be cautious about this behavior. In 2015 researcher Martin Lang had 62 students from Masaryk University in the Czech Republic as the subjects of an experiment on this subject. When the students arrived, they were all fitted with a heart-rate monitor and an accelerometer on each wrist. They were then split into two groups and asked to sit around a table with a small metal statue on top of it.

Half the students were informed that they would have to give a short talk about the object to an art expert. The other half were asked to study the object and think about a list of questions, but were told they wouldn’t have to do any public speaking. Lang chose public speaking as the differentiator because many people have a fear of it.

All participants were asked to polish the metal statue with a cloth until they thought it was cleaned thoroughly. Then researchers told participants who were supposed to give a speech that they wouldn’t have to do it anymore. Analyzing their cleaning behavior, Lang noticed anxious people focused on smaller areas of the object and cleaned them more meticulously. He concluded that in times of high stress and anxiety, people default to repetitive behaviors (such as cleaning) because it gives them a sense of control during a chaotic period.

This behavior has its benefits. Your mind is telling you take precautions and control your environment, you’re doing something trying to mitigate surprises that could cause you emotional harm. You feel safer and freer in your space. And, of course, the benefit of a clean space. The issue is when it turns into compulsive perfectionism.

By trying to control everything within your home, you can start to lose control of your life.

When Does Some Cleaning Become Too Much Cleaning?

There’s nothing wrong with being a neat freak, and it’s OK if cleaning feels calming — we all have ways to decrease our anxiety. It’s an issue when it starts interfering with your life. For example, if you don’t socialize because you haven’t completed your cleaning rituals, it’s affecting your physical health, feels obsessive, or is making you late for other obligations — it may represent an issue. However, it’s important to note that these are only a sample of adverse behaviors that could result in obsessive cleaning, and they don’t necessarily mean a diagnosis of another mental disorder just as OCD.

Has Your Tidiness Gone Too Far?

If you’re unsure as to whether your cleaning habits are constructive or not, the best thing to do is to talk about it with an expert. On your own, it can be hard to recognize symptoms or rituals. A therapist can help you reduce your anxiety symptoms and recommend practices to help you gain the control you’re seeking.

And while you don’t have to put the Swiffer away forever, you can make other lifestyle changes that will make a difference when you’re not talking with an expert. Below are a few ideas to try.

  • Get your heart rate up
    Just like your cleaning schedule, develop an exercise schedule that will ensure you’re physically active 3-5 days a week. While exercise is by no means a substitute for psychotherapy, medication, or psychiatric care, it can diffuse excess anxious energy.
  • Do what you can to sleep well
    Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and feel rested. Not sleeping can exacerbate any mental condition..
  • Eat healthy and avoid alcohol
    Healthy eating, focusing on a Mediterranean diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fish, which may be linked to reduced anxiety. This could be because complex carbohydrates are metabolized more slowly than processed ones, therefore helping maintain a more even blood sugar level, which in return creates a calmer feeling. A balanced diet is also good for brain health.

If the sign of a spotless home eases your stress, that isn’t a bad thing. After all, clutter can be distracting. But be mindful to make sure your habit of tackling chores isn’t serving as a crutch. Life is full of surprises, and while grabbing the Windex can you give a sense of control, it won’t keep the unpredictable from happening. It can be hard to diagnose your own habits or behaviors, however, so don’t be afraid to ask family or friends what they think, or a professional therapist for help.

Published by

Ladan Nikravan Hayes

Contributor